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Pat's Lyric Tips

Rhythms and Variations

Poetic Rhythms and Variations

The problems we’ve just seen in “Unconditionally” arise because 2 different elements, both rhythmic, join together to create a union. Unless the natural shape of the language is preserved by the musical rhythm, the result will falter and mean less than if the words were simply spoken.


The same is true in poetry, at least in poetry that attempts to establish a rhythmic base: the entire panoply of poems written in iambics, essentially 2/3rds of the poetry written in English. They work like songs, in that the meter (or iambic pulse) that creates motion is joined to words. Unlike songs, the meter only creates expectations that the iambic pattern will continue, whereas in songs the music and lyric are articulated simultaneously. 


The poet sets the meter up by creating patterns of unstressed and stressed syllables, then departs from the da DUM da DUM pattern to make an expressive point. 


Once again, the natural stresses of the language need to be served in order to make the poet’s syncopations against the pulse effective.


Let’s start with two lines from Keats, who’s talking to a vase:


    Thou still unravished bride of quietness

    Thou foster child of silence and slow time

                —Ode on a Grecian Urn—

Here, Keats establishes a rhythmic figure by repeating it enough times to create expectations. In this case, the figure is an iamb: da DUM (unstressed, stressed). The poem starts out


    Thou still unravished bride of quiet…


    da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da…


The figure da DUM is firmly established by repetition, creating expectations that the final syllable of the line will follow the pattern and be a DUM. But the “ness” of “quietness” is unstressed, giving us 


    Thou STILL unRAVished BRIDE of QUIetness


    da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da da


This is syncopation. It cuts against the established pattern (da DUM) and substitutes the variation (da da), violating our expectations. This calls our attention to a variation that creates a diminuendo, supporting the idea of quietude. Nice.


The second line is even stronger:


    Thou foster child of silence…


    da DUM da DUM da DUM da…


The pattern is once again established, leading us to expect it to continue


    da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM


Instead, we find


    Thou FOSter CHILD of SIlence and SLOW TIME


    da DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM DUM


Once again, the diminuendo at “da da” supports the concept of  “silence” – is an example of it. But even more remarkable, the double stress at “slow time” slows the line down, supporting the concept of SLOW TIME!


Wonderful prosody is created by these syncopations. They enhance and support the meaning while, at the same time, creating a spotlight by surprising us—not doing the expected. That’s the gig for these poets. They do it very well. 


Note that the syncopation is achieved by creating variations in the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed and unstressed syllables are the fundamental building blocks both for establishing the pattern and creating variations. 


The variation is NOT achieved by keeping the same rhythmic pattern and mis-stressing syllables.


    Thou still unravished bride of quietness




    Thou STILL unRAVished BRIDE of QUIetness

    da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da da




    Thou STILL unRAVished BRIDE of QUIetNESS

    da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM




    Thou foster child of silence and slow time




    Thou FOSter CHILD of SIlence and SLOW TIME

    da DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM DUM




    Thou FOSter CHILD of Silence AND slow TIME

    da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM


If this were the way to create variation—by keeping the same meter and wrenching the words into an unnatural shape, we would lose the wonderful effects so hard won by diligent work and paying close attention. It would be the substitution of laziness and indifference for craft and talent. Worse, the support of the concept using rhythm and variation (like DUM DUM slowing the line down exactly where we’re talking about “slow time”) vanishes in a cartoon of language – a pointless flashing of light on the wrong thing. 


The technique of pattern and variation is simple and straightforward. You don’t have to distort the natural shape of the language, because all you have to do is arrange the natural stresses (the ordinary language) so that THEY create the variations, while keeping our attention focused on meaning. Distorting the shape pulls our focus away from meaning rather than supporting it and enhancing it.


In my view, the same principles apply directly to the matching stressed notes with stressed syllables and unstressed notes with unstressed syllables. Don’t mismatch them, rather, use the musical patterns of weak and strong (matched perfectly with syllables) to create expectations, then use the musical variations (matched perfectly with syllables) to enhance and support the meaning. All the while preserving the natural shape of the language, thereby keeping attention focused on meaning.


    Unconditional, unconditionally

    I will love you unconditionally…


    unconDItional, unconDItionally

    I will LOVE you unconDItionally




    UncondiTIONal, uncondiTIONalLY

    I will love YOU unCONdiTIONalLY


“How is that word used in Ordinary Language” and  “Preserve the natural shape of the language” have become, for me, 2 sides of the same coin: Just as “Is that tree real?” loses its meaning when real is wrenched out of its natural habitat in Ordinary Language, we lose meaning and emotion when we allow either musical rhythms or poetic rhythms to overpower the natural shape of words and phrases. 


Mantra: Preserve the natural shape of the language.


I have no doubt that Wittgenstein, not only a philosopher, but a consummate musician, would agree.

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