Melody, Meter, Momentum, and Meaning

jumper-silhouette over rhythm

Meter is the underlying force that gives life and motion to everything we do as musicians. Learn the most natural thing to happen at each beat, and you’ll be able to recognize when other composers do something unusual to create this or that effect. And because you know precisely WHERE they do it—which beats are involved—you’ll be able to use those same effects in your own music!

After I introduce a few concepts, I’ll show you how Adele’s powerful use of metric forces adds expression and meaning to “Someone Like You.”

THERE ARE FIVE BASIC TERMS FOR EXPLORING RHYTHM AND METER.

The terms musicians use to talk about rhythm are mostly clear. Still, to prevent confusion in this blog post, I’ve reworked five definitions from The Complete Musician by Steven Laitz as a starting point.

[1] Pulses.

Equally spaced clicks or taps (real or imagined) are called pulses. Pulses are “undifferentiated” because they have the same quality, loudness, and length.

[2] Beats.

Pulses transform into beats when some feel “stronger” than others. In this next example, you’ll hear the pulses from the previous example turn into beats as some become louder than others.<

[3] Tempo.

The tempo is the speed of the beat; that is, how fast or how slowly you nod or tap when you listen to music. The example you hear varies the tempo. [4] Meter.

Meter refers to the grouping of both strong and weak beats into recurring patterns. Our discussion today won’t focus on metric patterns, though that certainly makes a good study. Instead, we’ll focus on the psychological and physical sensations that meter creates.

It’s common to associate the words “down” and “up” with “strong” and “weak” beats. That’s because the words down and up describe our kinetic impression of what happens in meter. A basic 4/4 beat on a drumset illustrates this perfectly.

basic 4 drum beat

Strong beats FEEL more “grounded” than weaker “up” beats. And upbeats feel up in the air, as if they need to land. What goes up must come down. The motion of instability (up) moving to stability (down) gives music its forward-moving momentum.  

[5] Rhythm.

There are two meanings of the term rhythm, one general, one specific. Generally, it can refer to everything having to do with musical motion, counting, beats, pulses, tempo, and meter. You are presently reading a blog about rhythm.

More specifically, rhythm refers to “rhythmic patterns,” which result by combining longer and shorter note durations (and sometimes silences). Below, you’ll see the rhythmic pattern of the basic beat you just heard. Half-way through, the pattern becomes slightly more complicated.

two basic 4 drum patterns

EVERY MELODY HAS A RHYTHM.

I suppose you could describe a melody as a series of pitches, but that’s not technically correct. The difference between a note and a pitch is that notes have a specified length. In this next example, I’ve taken an identical series of pitches and assigned different note patterns to create two different rhythms.  

“one series of notes; two rhythmic patterns,”

one series of notes; two rhythmic patterns

Clearly, the two rhythmic patterns sound and feel quite different. Yet it’s not the patterns themselves that create the contrast. Their dissimilarity results from “metric placement”: how notes align with strong and weak beats.

In melody A, we hear a short pickup note leading to a note on every beat. In melody B, not one note lands on a beat. That’s what gives it its edgy feel.

Let’s compare versions A and B once more. This time, I’ll add another version (C) between the two. Version C has the same rhythmic pattern as version B. Each melody alternates eighth notes with eighth rests. But in version C, the notes fall on beats (with rests off the beat). In version B, the notes are on afterbeats (with the rests on the beat).

As a result, something really cool happens. Versions B and C have the same rhythmic pattern, but don’t sound/feel much like each other. Versions A and C have different rhythmic patterns, but sound and feel very much the same.

“Changing the metric placement of a rhythmic pattern,”

ALT

The conclusion? Changing the metric placement of a rhythmic pattern will change the way it sounds and feels.

LANGUAGE HAS RHYTHM, TOO.

Spoken language has strong and weak “beats,” as well. Some SYL-lables feel STRONG while OTH-ers feel WEAK. Every sentence has a “most natural” musical rhythm, such that the strongest spoken syllables align with the strongest musical beats. Watch.

If you were to speak the lyrics for Adele’s song “Someone Like You,” you’d likely accent the syllables that I’ve highlighted here.

I  HEARD that you’re SET-tled DOWN, that you FOUND a GIRL and you’re MAR-ried NOW.

The syllables that Adele stresses in her performance match the ones highlighted above.  Though if she set them to music in a predictable way – pairing strong syllables with strong beats –  her song would sound like this.

“Someone Like You,” with de-composed rhythm

someone like you with straight rhythm

This version makes the clear meaning of the words far too obvious. “Hey, I heard you got married. Cool! Hope you’re happy.” Enough said. Time for the chorus.

But the point of this song – its meaning – is not to report what transpired but to show why it matters. Adelle is still working through her feelings. Her heart remains unsettled, and an agitated heart rehashes and rehearses every painful detail. But not through logical argument. A troubled heart stammers and sputters. And at the same time, she needs to establish independence, so she has to make sure not to sound vulnerable.

I should point out that none of this subtext is in the lyrics. Adele conveys meaning through the metric alignment of the melody.

“Someone Like You,” in its original rhythm

analysis of someone like you

MELODIC NOTES TAKE ON THE CHARACTERISTIC HEFT AND LIFT OF THE BEATS THEY INHABIT.

The first note of Adele’s song comes in “too early” – before the 4-bar introduction finishes. The upbeat placement of the words “I heard” makes them feel interruptive and a bit awkward – the way we feel when we don’t quite know to bring up a sensitive issue. We desperately want to speak with confidence, but instead, we blurt. That’s happens here, though Adele quickly recovers and immediately finds her stride.

And what an odd stride it is! Notice that none of the naturally-stressed syllables lines up with a stressed beat. In fact, not a single melodic note falls on beats 1 or 3! No wonder the music feels unsettled: everything is metrically up in the air. By accenting the weak beats in bars 2-4, Adele creates a slow-motion backbeat. She says what she says at her own deliberate pace.

And listen to how she shakes her finger at this man. The words, “that you’re,” “that you,” “and you’re,” come on beat 4 of measures 1-3. Adele turns each two-word phrase into an accusation by setting each pair of words to a disruptive, in-your-face rhythmic figure known as “The Scotch Snap.” Usually, words like “that you’re,” “that you,” and “and you’re” serve to connect ideas. And that’s what they do when we read the lyrics. But when Adele sings, none of the “connective” words “connect.” Each bar ends with an upbeat to nothing – an exaggerated upbeat to nothing. In this way, she fills every pause with anticipation.

Then suddenly, everything changes.

“Someone Like You,” at the point the rhythm breaks

someone like you at the point the rhythm breaks

The second phrase resumes the slow, backbeat stride of the first. But when we get to the words “that your dreams come true,” the upbeat on beat 4 is NOT interrupted! Instead, the upbeat ushers in THREE QUARTER NOTES! The contrast in motion (forward momentum) is as astounding as it inspiring. Especially because the first quarter note – the one on the downbeat – is the highest in the song so far! And the word at that moment? “Dreams.”

Do you find it ironic that the most metrically grounded music enters at the word “dreams?” Aren’t dreams elusive? Don’t dreams dwell in the sphere of feelings and imagination? What does Adele imply by quickening and certifying the pace with on-the-beat motion at this point?

In my view, She wholeheartedly affirms everything that our culture believes – that our dreams for love and happiness are the most treasured and essential aspects of who we are.

For me, this opening passage of “Someone Like You” is remarkable in all of songwriting. We hear Adele, a larger-than-life superstar being vulnerable despite her calculated efforts not to. She’s overcome by love, a love that transcends her deep pain. She genuinely wishes the best for her former partner. Her song is a combination of denying her true feelings and letting them spill. We don’t get any sense of this from the lyrics, which are hardly illuminating. And this is why we need melody. The way Adele marries her unremarkable words to the ups and downs of musical meter speaks to each one of us about our own disappointments and dreams.

POINTS FOR REVIEW

  • There are five basic terms for exploring rhythm and meter: pulse, beats, meter, tempo and rhythm. All five aspects come into play in melody.
  • When we say that “Every melody has a rhythm,” we acknowledge that a melody is a series of notes (which have specific lengths), not pitches (which don’t).
  • It is possible to take one series of notes and, by changing the rhythm, make different melodies.
  • When we say that language has rhythm, we’re particularly interested in noting differences between stressed and unstressed syllables.
  • Melodic notes take on the characteristic weight and lift of the beats they inhabit.

Want to go further? You CAN!

Each chapter in this 300-page eBook breaks down everything that effective composers do intuitively. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of step-by-step instructions to help you create the same effects in your own music.

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David Fuentes

David Fuentes

Professor Fuentes is a composer, author, teacher, and clinician. He brings over 30 years of teaching experience from institutions that include Berklee College of Music, the University of Iowa, Brandeis University, and Calvin University.

Dr. Fuentes’ music has been performed all across the world. It includes music for the classical concert stage, theater and musical theater, television, art installations, popular music genres, and the church.

A published author, his writing on composition, vocation and the arts, and the place of music in human flourishing has been influential in the development of music curriculum in an ever-changing world.

You can find samples of his music and writing on his personal website: davidfuentesmusic.com, which also provides a longer bio.

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