Harmonic Rhythm

Harmonic Rhythm 

When coming up with a chord progression, many less experienced songwriters fail to value the rhythmic placement of the chord changes as much as other elements.  However, when and how often a chord change occurs has a dramatic effect on the overall perception of a chord progression.  The frequency and rhythmic placement of chord changes is called the “harmonic rhythm” and songwriters can use it to change the feel of a progression.  Let’s demonstrate this by beginning with a simple I-VIm-IV-V in C major and investigating the way in we can manipulate it.

The first four examples all follow consistent patterns.  Notice how each shift in the harmonic rhythm changes the feel of the progression.

Two measures each

||C———|————|Am———|————|

|F———|————|G————|————:||

One measure each

||C———|Am———|F———|G———:||

Two beats each

||C—Am—|F—G—|C—Am—|F—G—:||

One beat each

|| C Am F G | C Am F G | C Am F G | C Am F G :||

Using unbalanced harmonic rhythms, where certain chords last longer than others can add another layer to the progression.

Alternating six beats with two beats

||C———|——Am—|F———|——G—:||

Alternating two beats with six beats

||C—Am—|————|F—G—|————:||

Alternating three beats with one beat

||C——Am|F——G|C——Am|F——G:||

Alternating one beat with three beats

||C Am——|F G——|C Am——|F G——:||

When we start to create unbalanced, assymetrical patterns, things can get really interesting.

Ex.1

||C——Am|F———|F———|F—G—:||

Ex. 2

||C———|Am—F—|G———|————:||

Ex. 3

||C———|————|Am———|F—G—:||

Ex. 4

||C Am F—| G———|C Am F—| G———:||

Going a step further, varying the harmonic rhythm of a progression can be used to create contrast within a section or between sections.

Ex. 5. Verse

||C———|Am———|F———|G———|

|C—Am—|F—G—|C—Am—|F—G—|

|C———|Am———|F———|G———|

|C—Am—|F—G—|C—Am—|F—G—||

Ex. 6  A verse and chorus

||C———|————|Am———|————|

|F———|————|G————|————|

|C———|————|Am———|————|

|F———|————|G————|————||

||C———|Am———|F———|G———|

|C———|Am———|F———|G———||

Assignment: Use a two to four chord progression to come up with at least six different musical examples by manipulating the harmonic rhythm.  Choose two of these examples and combine them to create either a one song section (i.e a verse OR chorus) or two contrasting song sections (i.e. a verse AND chorus).

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