top of page

Compose Yourself, Part 2: Rev Up Your Rhythm

In Compose Yourself, Part 1: Make a Memorable Melody, we briefly discussed how an effective melody needs a rhythmic scheme that moves the tune forward. But how does a person create a rhythm with zest? A rhythm which supports and enhances a composition's other qualities?

Read on for ideas to vitalize your original works with exciting rhythmic possibilities --- even the quiet, understated pieces! Every great melody grows with a life-breathing rhythm behind it.

Start with a catchy rhythmic motif.

What is a motif? It is simply a short rhythm or melody pattern that a composer uses to establish a signature sound or identity to a piece.

One of the most famous rhythmic motifs is the first four notes that open Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. He uses it to great effect because it's not always paired with the same set of pitches.

Familiarity without utter sameness --- an excellent blend of both consistency and variety.

To build a rhythmic motif, just like writing a memorable melody, keep it simple. Your motif need only be a few notes long. Two to eight notes is a common length.

Two or three different note values will suffice, and won't overwhelm with too many musical ideas.

You may decide to put a rest or two within your rhythm pattern. Well-placed silence is often as effective as sound, and can highlight key pitches in your melody through the pause that immediately precedes them.

Consider experimenting with syncopation.

Syncopating your rhythm by tying notes from a weak beat to a strong one, then placing the next note on an offbeat or weak beat, can add rhythmic flair.

Syncopation can also be notated by starting your motif with a single eighth note, followed by a quarter note. This places the quarter note on an offbeat, which gives a jaunty feel.

Try back-phrasing or front-phrasing.

These techniques involve displacing your rhythm by starting it a little later or earlier than the beat on which your original motif began.

For example, a motif with three pitches starting on beat 1 in a 4/4 time signature, using, in order, quarter note, quarter note, half note, could be back-phrased by using these values: quarter rest on beat 1, followed by quarter note, quarter note, quarter note, with the same three pitches as before.

In other words, the sequence of pitches remains the same, but they are started later, and one or more note values are shortened to fit the pitches into one measure or whatever was the original length of the motif.

Front-phrasing can be arranged by starting your motif a beat earlier and lengthening the first note so that the subsequent notes are played at their usual times.

Add an extra note to your melody, then half your rhythm there.

This is a simple maneuver that moves a melody forward in an interesting way when not overused. Let's say your melody goes C, B, A, G on quarter notes. Try changing it to C, B, A-A, G (quarter, quarter, eighth-eighth, quarter) for a bit of variety.

Different pitches can be used in such a rhythmic variation, too, if you'd like. How about C, B-C, A, G? Or C, B, A-F#, G for a slightly different melodic flavor along with your rhythmic shift?

As always, let your enhancements be subtle. They're meant to sprinkle your piece with a little spice, not steal the show!

Compose with a fresh time signature now and then.

The western world has lots of music in 4/4 time and other common meters with 2, 3, or 6 beats in a measure. Let me encourage you to bravely embrace composing a piece with a more unusual meter signature to share with others!

Have you ever played a piece in 5/4 time, or 7/8? We need more music like that. :-) Here are a few tips for crafting a piece with that different rhythmic feel to it:

1. Decide whether you'd like, for example, your five beats in a measure to be arranged in a 2+3 or a 3+2 pattern. In a 5/8 piece, one way to achieve the 2+3 feel is by using this rhythm sequence: one quarter note + three eighth notes. The reverse is true of a 3+2 scheme (three eighth notes + one quarter note).

2. Unless you are composing for fairly advanced players, it is best to stick to one rhythm subdivision (either 2+3 or 3+2), rather than switching between those or other rhythmic configurations within your meter.

3. On the other hand, shifting metrical subdivisions can add interest for more advanced players. Say you decide you'd like to compose a piece in 7/8 time. Go ahead and put some of it in a 3+4 accent pattern (emphasis like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7), then change it up to 4+3 (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) or another grouping.

4. Your best bet for changing your rhythmic subdivisions within a piece is to plan your accent pattern, rather than let it be random. Perhaps you'd like your main melody to have a 3+4 pattern, and your secondary theme to be 2+3+2. Whatever you outline, your rhythm will be more orderly when changed purposefully, and will enhance rather than distract from the other elements of your composition.

Bottom line: when choosing rhythms for your pieces, remember that using a few well-planned ideas is better than trying to incorporate every great thought you have into one piece! Less is more.

Next up: harmony. Enjoy sketching your melodic and rhythmic lines, and next month we'll color them all in!

bottom of page