Melody Rhythm Rule
Learn how to avoid this rhythmic fault that many songwriters and producers make in their melodies. But first... Tea!
Hello revolutionary music makers, we are Kate and Ray Harmony (AKA Revolution Harmony), and welcome to Hack Music Theory, the fast, easy and fun way to make music! If you’re new to theory, or if you just want a refresher, then read our free book "12 Music Theory Hacks to Learn Scales & Chords". It’ll give you a super solid music theory foundation in just 30 minutes. The free download is below. Enjoy!
Firstly, just to clarify. A fault is not a mistake! Music is an art, so if you’re making music from your heart, then there cannot be any mistakes. But, when songwriters and producers don’t understand theory, which is the grammar of music, they’re not able to fully express themselves. Just like if someone was trying to write a poem in a language they didn’t speak. The resulting work of art will undoubtedly have weaknesses. And a fault is defined as a weakness. So, what’s the fault in this melody?
Well, it sounds completely lifeless, right? It’s totally lacking in vital energy. What’s causing that? Rhythm! Or rather, a lack thereof. Unfortunately for rhythm, it’s usually the overlooked element in a melody. Indeed, songwriters and producers often seem to forget that melody actually contains two elements: pitch and rhythm. To hear this in action, just listen to the New Music Friday playlist on Spotify every week. It’s clear that the rhythms of most melodies are an afterthought, at best.
I’ve worked with countless songwriters and producers who’ve ended up at the horribly frustrating point of wanting to delete a melody, cos they just can’t get it sounding right. Up until that point though, they’d spent all their time trying to fix the pitches, but they’d not once considered that maybe it’s the rhythm that needs fixing. So, after bringing their attention to the forgotten element of rhythm, a few small tweaks later, and they’ve fallen in love with the exact same melody they were about to delete. So next time you’re frustrated and tempted to delete a melody, try experimenting with its rhythm instead, and see if you can save it!
Now you’re probably wondering what exactly makes a good rhythm. Well first, it’s important to remember that a rhythm is a pattern in time. And just like with all other patterns, our human brains get bored if there’s too much repetition, and they get overwhelmed if there’s too much variety. Therefore, good rhythms (like all good patterns), enjoy a pleasing yet interesting balance of repetition and variety.
Most melodies these days do not have any problem with repetition, it’s the lack of variety that causes their weakness. Variety in a melody is created by using many different note values, and most importantly, syncopation. Syncopation is when you accent an off-beat, and it puts a real spring in your melody’s step, bringing it to life.
For example, in the first three beats of our rhythm, we moved two on-beat notes to off-beats. The difference that this small tweak makes to our melody is truly unbelievable! You can hear it’s already being revived, and we’re only in the first bar.
And by the way, our example is in the key of A minor, which is all the white notes from A to A, and the tempo is 95 BPM.
Now, you’re probably wondering how to tell if your melody’s rhythm is boring. Easy, you give it the one-note test. You see, removing the pitch element of your melody will expose its rhythm. In other words, if your melody is captivating when played on one pitch, then it has a good rhythm. If it sounds boring on one pitch, then you need to work on its rhythm.
So to conclude. Our Melody Rhythm Rule is that your melody should still sound good when played on only one pitch. And the best way to do that is to ensure that your melody’s rhythm balances repetition and variety, and includes some syncopation.
Lastly, if you need more help writing melodies, then simply use our "Melody Checklist", which tells you exactly what to do and what not to do in your melodies. The "Melody Checklist" can be found in our Songwriting & Producing PDF. Thanks for being here in the Hack Music Theory community, we really appreciate you, and we'll see you next time. Until then, we're sending you good vibes and gratitude :)
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