Tuesday, January 15, 2008

15 Minutes To Understanding Rythmic Theme And Variation

This is the rhythmic notation for the melody to the song “Summer In The City”. In my notation there are four color coded, repeating patterns. Three are in the verse. One is a series of three sixteenth notes followed by a dotted eighth note indicated by the red lines below the staff. The second is a series of four sixteenth notes indicated where there are blue lines above the staff. Technically these would be called rhythmic motifs because they’re too short to be considered themes. The third pattern is a longer series of sixteenth notes and eighth notes indicated by the green lines that sounds like dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit-dah-dah. This would be considered a theme, made up of two four-note motifs.

Now notice there’s a variation of the green rhythm in bar five where it is shortened to six notes so that it sounds like dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit. The green rhythm is repeated again in measure six so we get this rhythm: dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit, dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit. Then there’s an even shorter variation of the green rhythm at the end of bar six where it only goes dit-dit-dah-dah, which is just the four-note motif that the theme is based on.

Now, at bar ten, where the chorus begins we find a new five-note motif that features an eighth note/ sixteenth note combination that sounds like dit-dah dit-dah-dit. This pattern is indicated in yellow. Then notice how the red, green and blue motifs from the verse are woven into the chorus.

Now, this entire melody is only 15 bars long. But in this 15 bar melody the blue rhythm repeats 6 times. The red rhythm repeats 7 times (it’s a continuation in bar 13-14). The green rhythm repeats 6 times with variations, and the pattern in yellow repeats 3 times. That’s four patterns of rhythm repeating a total of 22 times with slight variations in the combinations of all four of them. The themes and motifs move around to different places in the measures. There are also a couple other short minor motifs, but least one of the four MAIN ones appears in nearly every measure.

You can see how this ties the melody together in a very tight way. This is a highly memorable song, and not so much because we’ve all heard it a zillion times, but because it was memorable the first time we heard it. It was easy to capture it in our minds. Of course there are other hook factors in this song that contribute to it being a memorable tune. But Theme and Variation in the rhythm contributes a lot to its catchy quality.

Now here’s another important point: the second cycle of the verse and chorus of “Summer In The City” doesn’t change. It’s exactly the same rhythmic pattern syllable for syllable. In other words, this is a very tightly constructed song. The rhythmic and melodic themes and motifs get pounded into the listener’s head so much that it’s almost impossible to forget this song after hearing it once. That’s the value of rhythmic repetition.

It’s usually much easier to recognize melodic themes that repeat, or repeat with some variation, for example the melody to “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. The first two lines are nearly identical in notes and intervals as well as rhythm. Then the final lines contain an accelerated variation of the rhythm—it doubles up or moves twice as fast—this is called: Diminution. That’s also a trick you can use to unify and strengthen the impact of your melody.

The important thing to remember is that the human brain perceives patterns quickly and interprets them as “order”.
So, try to detect some potential “Theme and Variation” in your melody. Look for repeated patterns in the notes and rhythms. Remove some notes if necessary, add a few notes in certain spots until you hear some repeated phrases and some “echoes” or similar melodic patterns. Be especially conscious of unnecessary clutter that may have gotten into the melody due to a “wordy” lyric. Try to distill the essence of your melody down to simple, pure phrases that all lead to the musical hook.

Even if you only partially simplify your melody the result will be a more memorable song. When you do this, sometimes you’ll see that some of the lyrical clutter is unnecessary, too. In other words you simultaneously compress your lyric and your melody and the song gets tighter which gives it more IMPACT, more immediate Memorablility.

If the melodic or rhythmic theme you’re using is a particularly long one, try repeating or echoing only part of it to see if this leads to some fresh musical variations. The more variations of the hook’s phrasing you can find, the more options you’ll have for the rest of the song’s melody.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

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