2.5 Playing with Time

As a lyricist, you have to think primarily about two things: rhythm and repetition. But, if you think about it, rhythm is just a way of playing around with repetition. Take the backbeat, which we were just talking about, for example. The basic count is just:

1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

That is, the count repeats every four beats. In fact, the count repeats every one beat, since each new beat is just another downbeat, a repetition of the one that came before it.
And then something funny happens with the drums:

        | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |
Hi-Hat: | / / / / / / / / | / / / / / / / / |
Snare:  |     /       /   |     /       /   |
Kick:   | /       /       | /       /       |

The hi-hat decides to repeat the beat half a beat early. What it has done, in effect, is to compress the count’s basic repetition into the space of half a beat. The bass drum (or “kick”), however, decides to do exactly the opposite. It ignores the first repeat on beat 2, and only repeats on the third beat. What the kick has done, in essence, is to stretch out the count’s basic repetition to a length equivalent to two beats. Meanwhile the snare jumps in on the second beat to remind the kick that it forgot to repeat, and then it forgets to repeat again until the fourth. In this interplay of two drums (who have stretched the count’s repetition to double its length, but that begin their repetitions at different times) and a snare (who has compressed the count’s repetition to half its length), you get a steady count. 1, 2, 3, 4. . . . And that’s pretty cool.

But there are other things that are even cooler. Take the rhythm, for example, of “America the Beautiful”:

4     +  |  1     +     2     +     3     +     4     +  |
Oh       |  beau-             ti-   ful         for      |
         |  1     +     2     +     3     +     4     +  |
         |  spa-              cious skies,      for      |
         |  1     +     2     +     3     +     4     +  |
         |  Am-         ber         waves       of       |
         |  1     +     2     +     3     +     4     +  |
         |  grain.                                       |

The rhythm here is subtle, but clever. It stretches the first repetition in the first two measures (on “beau-” and “spa-”), till it becomes equivalent to 1.5 beats. Then it compresses the second repetition (on “-ti-” and “-cious”) till it is equivalent to only 0.5 beats. That way, the rhythm is all caught up by the start of beat 3, and both the third and fourth repetitions follow the count.

Then, notice what happens in measure 3. Instead of stretching the first repetition, like you are now expecting, it stays with the count the whole way through the measure. This gives you the feeling that the second repetition (on “-ber”) hits early even though it’s on the beat, right where it should be. This, in turn, makes the “rhythm” of measure 3 feel insistent, strident, and determined, instead of boring. Genius, I tell you!

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Featured image by Marcel Haring

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