Reflections on rhythm

I have been reflecting on rhythm a bit the last day or two. I guess I sometimes keep the rhythm very simple, and other times I play with it a lot. I’m not a percussionist, and I know they play with rhythm a lot more. Sometimes in the string section, we get to be percussive, and it’s all about the rhythm. Like when we played Mjölnir or The Imperial March for example.

I have learned about music for pretty much as long as I can remember. At first, it was all in Swedish, because I lived in Sweden until 2002, when I entered Brigham Young University as an undergraduate student in music. I had taken plenty of music theory, aural skills, composition and arranging classes, harmony, choir, vocal ensemble, piano, and I had also rubbed shoulders with lots of talented musicians in other fields (instrumentalists of most kinds, jazz players, etc.) which gave me some insight into their world.

But it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned the terms “simple meter” and “compound meter.” It’s very intuitive once you apply it to all the music you’ve heard and studied for 15 years or so, and it becomes another useful tool or term to use when talking about music. I’ll explain here briefly for those who may not know about it.

Simple meter is when the subdivision is 2. You have 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, etc., and the subdivision is the eighth note. Compound meter is when the subdivision is 3, and you have, for example, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, and so on. For a conductor, you beat one, but there are three notes to each beat (or you feel it if it’s not subdivided right there).

We were just playing the music from Avatar last week at our Halloween concert. One of the intriguing parts about the music is that it switches from simple to compound to simple subdivisions several times. Harry Potter symphonic suite is all over the place as well, and you get to play both. You can simulate compound meter by writing in triplets in a simple meter. And you can simulate simple meter in a compound meter by writing in tuplets.

When I write music that is based on words, the lilt of the language helps inform the rhythm. That is one reason I love working with lyrics, because inherent in most poetry is an interesting rhythm, and it helps me create what I think is an interesting line.

Try these:

“and the calf” with the rhythm two eighth notes and a quarter note

and

“cover the sea” with eighth note triplets and a half note.

You get the stress on the strong part of the beat, which makes it easier to sing, and easier to understand when you listen.

This way, the way you write rhythm reflects your interpretation of the lyrics, much like a reading would convey the way you understand the poetry.

As I’m working on the melody for my new song, I listen through, and find that there is one point where the word “and” lands on the downbeat of a measure, and it seems wrong. I fix it by adding in an eighth note to the previous beat, and moving all the rest of the notes one beat closer to the beginning, and it’s like I was imagining. It’s easy to make a mistake, but I’m glad it’s pretty easy to fix too.

I’m trying to decide which parts of the scriptures I’d picked to include, and which to skip over. Trying to include all the scriptures will be tedious, and people might struggle to understand certain wordings because they’re so archaic. For a song to be “catchy” like I suggested yesterday, repetition is extremely useful. Nobody can learn a song that doesn’t repeat anything except by practicing a lot, and that kind of is the antithesis of “catchy.” I would like it if people hear my song, and then start humming it, and that will only happen if I repeat an idea enough. So maybe I’ll settle with the material I’ve come up with and then repeat the ideas again, with some interesting (hopefully) twists.

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