Harmonic rhythm is something created and established at the start of the songwriting process that can deeply affect the feel of a song.
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Groove is a difficult thing to define precisely, but you can’t go wrong by thinking of groove as a song’s sense of motion, its rhythmic “feel”. A lot of what we perceive as groove in a song happens during production. The placement of the vocal line, power and basic arrangement of the rhythmic patterns, the instrumental sound used, and the intensity of the instrumental accompaniment all have a hand in establishing a song’s basic feel. But there is one other thing that is directly in the hands of the songwriter, established right at the beginning of the songwriting stage, and that is harmonic rhythm.
A song’s harmonic rhythm may not be what you think it is. It’s not the rhythm of the chords as they are played. Rather, harmonic rhythm refers to how frequently the chords change during a musical composition.
Most of the time, this pattern of frequency of chord changes gets established at the beginning, and usually doesn’t change. Listen to Usher’s “Scream” for a good current example of a song that establishes a basic harmonic rhythm that remains unchanged throughout the length of the song: a chord change every two bars (i.e., 8 beats per chord).
Harmonic rhythm can be part of a song form. For example, most standard blues (C F7 C G7 F7 C) use a pre-set, if you will, harmonic rhythm of 16 beats for the 1st chord (C), 8 beats for the second and third chords (F7-C), 4 beats for the fourth and fifth chords (G7-F7), and 8 for the final (C).
Sometimes the harmonic rhythm becomes a crucial part of the actual rhythm of the song, such as the syncopated chord changes in Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” But in most cases, the chords change almost “in spite of” the basic rhythms of the song’s vocal line and accompaniment.
It’s often that interplay of harmonic rhythm and actual rhythm that establishes and intensifies the groove, or feel of a song. For example, melodies and backing instruments may play syncopated rhythms, rhythms that sound as good as they do because the chord are changing regularly underneath in an unsyncopated way.
As an example, listen to Michael Jackson’s “Jam”, from his Dangerous album (song begins at 0’25” of the clip). At the beginning of the verse (1’17″), implied chords are lightly scored, happening at regular intervals (4 beats), over a clearly-established rhythmic groove, while the vocal line is completely syncopated. This partnership between the rhythmic groove and the regularity of the harmonic rhythm intensifies the song’s energy.
So here are the things you should keep in mind about harmonic rhythm:
- For any one section of a song, establish a harmonic rhythm, and stick to it at least 80% of the time. In other words, if your verse starts with changes in chords every 8 beats, keep that basic pattern for at least the entire verse.
- Every once in a while, changing the harmonic rhythm can be effective. For example, James Taylor’s “Whenever I see Your Smiling Face” changes chords every beat for the first two bars of the verse, then it settles down to one change every 4 beats.
- It’s OK to use one harmonic rhythm for the verse, and another one for the chorus. It can be interesting to experiment with this. You might be inclined to think that a faster harmonic rhythm (i.e., for frequent chord changes) will intensify a song’s rhythmic feel, but that’s not often true. So try a chorus that slows down the chord changes.
- In general, the faster the tempo of a song, the longer (slower) the harmonic rhythm should be. Fast songs that change chords quickly get a frantic, panicky feeling.
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