Many great songs are defined and made memorable by their rhythmic aspects: a jagged-edged riff in a rock anthem; a compelling, hypnotic beat driving a contemporary pop track; or the complex, master-drummer cadences of skilled rappers in hip-hop. Each of us has favorite songs where the rhythm was an essential part of what grabbed us. My personal list would include the 1982 hip-hop classic “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” the Knack’s “My Sharona,” and John Lennon’s surrealistic chanting in “Come Together.”
Even in songs that aren’t rhythmically driven overall, as in the work of the great Motown writers or early Beatles classics, we hear a definiteness and assuredness in the rhythmic phrasing of every line, and an alignment of phrasing across lines in the song. Sometimes, it’s only in writing or revising that we come to appreciate the impact of even slight rhythmic alterations in making a song work. A hook line vague and unconvincing in one rhythmic setting may suddenly come alive—become memorable and believable—with a minute shift in rhythmic phrasing. The rhythmic magic may lie in the harmony or accompaniment as well. Two rhythmic variations turn a stock I IV I V chord progression into the anthemic, chordal motif tolling throughout Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
Despite how vital and integral the element of rhythm is in songwriting, it often receives less attention than lyric, melody, or harmony. As you begin working with the four facets of the songwriter’s compass, you may find one facet you’re most familiar with and think about most readily—your “comfort zone” facet. Or you may discover a “shadow facet”—the facet that’s least comfortable for you to work with and bring to conscious awareness. For me, and for many other writers, that shadow facet is rhythm.
Why would this be the case? Few songwriters are trained directly in percussion. Many songwriters can work ably with specific rhythmic idioms that characterize a given style or genre they know well, but would struggle to develop novel rhythmic ideas. For many performing songwriters, rhythm may be most active as an element of performance, used almost like dynamics, rather than built compositionally into the “bones” of the song.
Yet, there are deeper reasons for our difficulties in working with rhythm—reasons that lie in the relationship of rhythm to the other songwriting facets. In the context of a song, we encounter rhythmic elements intimately intertwined with other elements. Some rhythmic elements are embedded in the very “landscape” in which we compose, perform, and hear the song. We encounter these rhythmic elements directly, but not in a form easy to shift at will, especially as we’re writing the song. In core compositional elements of the song, on the other hand, rhythmic aspects are primarily expressed indirectly, through other elements: lyric syllables, melodic pitches, chord changes. Here rhythms are difficult to shift, not because they’re defined by the whole groove of the song, but because they’re tied to the specific phrase.
It’s fairly easy to sing a wordless melody, to sing a melody without playing chords, or to speak lyrics without singing pitches. That allows us to experiment, sketching different lyrics or chords to that melody, or different melodies for a lyric line. But we can’t easily speak words (and hear them as song lyrics), or sing a melody, or play chords, without speaking, singing, or playing them in some rhythm. Song seed material in each facet tends to arrive already infused with rhythmic impulses. These may or may not be the best rhythmic designs for the song to be. Yet, we often lack the skills to vary the rhythmic settings as we work with the material later.
Conversely, it’s very challenging to work with rhythmic phrases and patterns separately from their embodiment in some combination of lyric, melodic, or harmonic material. We almost always experience and work with rhythmic patterns embedded in accompaniment grooves, spoken or sung lyrics, melodic or chordal phrases. Thus, we rarely start from a song seed captured in purely rhythmic form. This limits the expressiveness and complexity of the rhythmic ideas we can work with effectively, and our ability to interweave independent rhythmic patterns in the various facets.