Songwriter U: Lyrically Speaking-Rhythm Schemes

You’ve heard of rhyme schemes, the various ways you can arrange sounds to link lines and create sequences of motion. In this article, I want to look at rhythm’s ability to do the same thing: sometimes supporting the rhyme scheme, sometimes working contrary to it. 

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We’ll work with tetrameter couplets, one of the two most common sequences used by songwriters. A tetrameter line contains four stressed syllables (tetra) and some number of unstressed syllables. Like this:

Súnlit dúcklings cróss the láke

Gólden rípples líght their wáke

Tetrameter couplets present a number of opportunities and some interesting challenges. On the opportunities side, they create bite-size folds to enclose an idea, beginning and ending in eight stressed syllables, which is long enough to say something meaningful and short enough to be memorable. Plus, they create an extremely stable unit, which is a great way to support ideas you want your audience to believe: They’ll feel like you’re telling a fact or something true. 

Here are two examples, one in triple meter, the other in duple meter. The number of stressed syllables, as usual, controls line length. The number of unstressed syllables creates the feel:

Triple meter:

Watch as the ducklings all circle and dive a

See them unfolding, so young and alive a

Oh, how the sunlight reflects in the lake b

Ripples of gold from the slip of their wake b

Duple meter:

Sunlit ducklings cross the lake a

Golden ripples light their wake a

Watch them circle, dip and dive b

Wings unfold, so young, alive b

The road map outlined by the rhymes in each sequence asks for one idea per two lines, with each idea being resolved inside its couplet and the rhymes creating a full resolution every two lines: 

Sunlit ducklings cross the lake

Golden ripples light their wake (resolved)

Watch them circle, dip and dive

Wings unfold, so young, alive (resolved)

But this presents a challenge too: In a stack of couplets, we’re continually stopped and restarted every two lines, making a journey through, say, eight lines, a four-stop journey. That threatens to make the journey seem longer than it is or perhaps should be.

To avoid all of that stopping, you might want to abandon couplets in favor of an abab rhyme scheme or any other through-moving sequence. But let’s take a different tack. Let’s take a look at what the rhythms of the tetrameter lines can do to create a counterpoint against the relentless march of the couplets.

Not every tetrameter couplet has to move in regular rhythm. If the main feeling of the section is in triplets, some duples might create a moment of variety, a syncopation if you will:

Dum da da Dum da da Dum da da dive

Dum da Dum da Dum da live

Watch as the ducklings all circle and dive

Wings unfold, so young, alive

You can feel your focus drawn to the variation, calling attention, as usual, to what is different. Already this diffuses the lockdown (resolution) that the rhymes suggest, opening them up slightly.

But once you create that second line’s variation, you’re in a position to create rhythmic expectations: You are now in a position to create a rhythmic aba by repeating the rhythm of line one:

  Rhyme scheme Rhythm scheme

Watch as the ducklings all circle and dive a a

Wings unfold, so young, alive a b

Oh how the sunlight reflects in the lake b a

The sequence aba creates a strong expectation for a final b. If you provide it, you will have effectively counterpointed the motion of the aabb rhyme scheme against the motion of an abab rhythm scheme:

  Rhyme scheme Rhythm scheme

Watch as the ducklings all circle and dive a a

Wings unfold, so young, alive a b

Oh, how the sunlight reflects in the lake b a

Rippled gold, a shining wake b b

While the rhyme scheme is saying “two lines plus two lines,” the rhythm scheme is saying “four lines,” opening the couplets by creating the secondary four-line rhythmic sequence.

In varying your number of unstressed syllables, you can work against the dominant syllabic rhythm: Use duples against a triplet feel and use triplets against a duple feel. 

Now let’s try an abab rhythm scheme in duple meter using triplet variations: 

  Rhyme scheme Rhythm scheme

Sunlit ducklings cross the lake a a

Ripples of gold flash in their wake a b

Watch them circle, dip and dive b a

See them unfold, young and alive b b

Then, an abba rhythm scheme using duple meter with triplet variations: 

  Rhyme scheme Rhythm scheme

Sunlit ducklings cross the lake a a

Ripples of gold, flash in their wake a b

See them unfold, young and alive b b

Watch them circle, dip and dive b a

Once you realize this kind of flexibility is available to you, it opens the possibility of creating even larger rhythm schemes for longer sequences: aabaab, abcabc, aaabaaab. It’s an interesting way to look at rhythm, and why not? Rhythms can create sequences and structures just like rhyme does, or just like the opening notes in each line in a song do. 

It’s just a matter of noticing the possibilities that rhythm schemes present for creating sequence and motion. Then you experiment, taking your time to notice how these contrary sequences make you feel and make the journey feel. This exercise in close focus will illuminate your decision-making as you’re writing lines and melodies in your real songs. All it takes is time and attention. 

Happy practicing.

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