A Case Study in Rhythm

That's fancy-schmancy terminology for "doing something and commenting on what I do." In this case, someone asked me how I would go about adding chords to something that goes like (cDeF). I sort of branched out from there. Hopefully you find this useful. Someone actually used this for a song, so I'm afraid that you can't use it for one of your own, unless you do things differently than what I've done here.

I'm working on a piece for gitor. I'm trying the method of writing the melody first then adding chords. The thing is its a jig, and I'm not sure how to place the chord rhythmically. If a measure goes cDeF where do you recommend putting the chords? Should I have just one per measure, or more? I'm at the stage where everything I try sounds slightly silly :P

Oog, er... it depends? :P I'm afraid I need a bit more to work off than that. :) You see, a lot of the decisions you make depend on the context that you're working with. For instance...

If you were at a slower tempo, you could try doing something like this:


In this interpretation, I made the first c an upbeat, with the first measure actually starting on the D. You see, there are a couple of rhythmic guidelines/rules that you may not know... Let's see if I can work out a basic explanation without getting too sidetracked.

Basically, not all notes are created equally. :) For instance, in melodies, some notes are stronger than others. The I is the most important and 'strongest' not (And chord) of the key you are in, followed by the V. All the other notes are 'weaker,' in an order that isn't really that important. When making a melody, you want to start with a strong note, move out to explore the other notes, but at the end you want to end with a strong note.

However, there are ways to emphasize notes in a melody. For instance, the highest (or lowest) note of a curve-shaped figure that uses stepwise motion (a figure means "a part of a melody." Usually just a few notes, although it can refer to an entire phrase.) will be more noticeable than a note in the middle of the run.

For example, in =cdefgfefgabg/C, I move up to the G, and then move down away from it. This causes the ear to think of it as 'more important.' I do something similar with the second e: I move down to it, and then move up away from it. Since I started on C and emphasized G and E, your mind will perceive (consciously or not) that the first part of the melody is harmonically in C major. Likewise, when I walk (er... use stepwise motion :P) up to the b and then leap down to the g (from which I leap back up to c), I am emphasizing both B and the G, which leads the ear to imagine that I'm implying a G major chord. And, of course, since the last c is the final note of the melody, it's already important. :)

Anyway, that was totally off topic, but knowing things like this might help, so I mention them when I think of them. :)

Anyway, back on task, there are ways of adding emphasis using rhythm. I'm assuming here that you know how to 'count' music. Most songs will either be in 4/4 or 3/4 time. Now, it's important to know that not all beats are created equally, either. You see, humans are very fond of patterns and order. Very, very fond. And beats that clearly indicate the rhythm are more important than beats that don't. In fact, I just thought up an entirely new way of looking at it!

You would count a measure in 4/4 time like this (imagine that the beat length is p2:

1_ 2_ 3_ 4_
p2 p2 p2 p2

Now, let's try dividing the measure up into halves to figure out where the accents are:


This is the basic structure for a measure in 4/4 time. The first line has one X that lasts for 4 beats. In the next line, each X lasts for half that amount of time, 2 beats each. On the third line, each X lasts for only one beat. Anyway, If you count up the number of X-es below each number, you find that the first beat has 3 X-es, the 3rd beat has 3 X-es, and the 2nd and 4th beats have only one. Now, in this measure, each beat's importance can be considered proportional to how many X-es it has in that diagram. Thus, the first beat is the most important, the 2nd and 4th beats are of little importance, and the 3rd beat is of middling importance. Now, when making rhythms, it's "best" to put notes on the more important beats. You should almost always have a note on beat 1, and usually a note on beat 3. That means that if you are using longer note values, you should have the longer notes starting on beats 1 or 3. Having a 2-beat note that starts on beat 2 will lead to you not having a note on beat 3. That's not so good because increased note length is a way of adding rhythmic emphasis, so you're putting more emphasis on beat 2 than on beat 3. This is used in syncopation, which I'll describe a bit later.

If you're in 3/4 time, then the 1st beat is strong, and the 2nd and 3rd beats are weak. One thing to think about when you're in 3/4 time is that, because the first beat is strong, it's better to have a longer note start on beat one than on beat two. That is, CdEf is better than cDeF. In fact, to someone listening to the second example, it might seem to them that the first c is actually the third beat from the previous measure. At the beginning of a piece, this is called an upbeat. I think. I'm kinda shaky when it comes to terminology. :P

Those are the general rules. Now, people break them all the time, in order to produce what is known as "syncopation." Syncopation is when beats of lesser strength are given more emphasis than stronger beats. Syncopation can sound really, really good. I use a lot of it in my later songs, especially blues-ey songs. However, it can be tricky to get the hang of it, so if you're going to use it (which I recommend doing, eventually), you might want to start simple and work up to more complicated things.

So.... to actually answer your question...

The easiest way to do chords it to have one every measure. I use that a lot in my early songs. The second easiest way to do chords is to have two every measure, one on beat 1, one on beat 3. To make more complicated things, you can just build from there. Once you've got a grasp on rhythm, you can make more complicated ones from scratch, but always keep an eye on beats 1 and 3, 'cause they're the most important, whether you put notes on them or you avoid them. :)

Your little snippet is 6 beats (length p2) long, so there's three ways of looking at it:
First, is analyzing it in 3/4 time, with beat 1 on the c:

Beat: 1_2_3_1_2_3_
Note: c_D___e_F___

This has you placing the longer notes on beat 2, which sounds pretty weird. The second possible way is to examine it in 3/4 time with beat 1 on the D:

Beat: 3_1_2_3_1_2_(3_)
Note: c_D___e_F___

If you do it this way, the long notes are placed on beat one, and the shorter notes on beat three. This is much more stable, rhythmically, than the first example. The third way of analyzing it is in 4/4 time:

Beat: 1_2_3_4_1_2_(3_4_)
Note: c_D___e_F___

I've only really included this as an example of how it's possible to take a rhythm that pretty obviously belongs in one time signature and jam it into a different time signature. Using a little section like this in your song wouldn't be a problem if the rest of the melody (and most/all of the harmony) indicated that 4/4 was the actual time signature, because it's rhythmic strangeness could be considered syncopation. But if most of your song used a pattern like this, it would sound very weird.

So.... yeah. Does that help? Sorry about going off on wild tangents every 3 sentences. :P If you're confused or have questions or things, you can talk to me in Clan Lord (or send an e-mail to coriakinCL@Gmail.com), and I'll try to answer any questions you have.

Go back to my music.