Pop Music Theory


1-7 (Intro & Pitch) +
8-18 (Major Scale) +
19-29 (Chord Progressions) +
30-34 (Hook Chords) +
35-41 (Written Notes) +
42-50 (Song Chorus) -
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone

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Lesson 46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone

This lesson introduces the art of choosing rhythms for your melodies.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:
There are no rules for "right" and "wrong" rhythms, but we can develop our art for choosing rhythms by:
  1. Studying the patterns and ideas in the rhythms in popular songs
  2. Practicing using those ideas in our own writing

So, for this lesson, we'll look at a single phrase from the folk-rock classic Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan. If you don't love this particular song, that's fine; use this lesson to learn how to study the rhythms in songs you do love. This lesson uses the version from The Essential Bob Dylan ($1.29 at Amazon as of this writing).

Here's the first 4-measure phrase from Verse 1 of Like A Rolling Stone (at 00:16 in the recording):

Once up- on - a time you dressed so fine -
Threw the bums a dime in - your prime
Did- n't you?

Now let's pull some rhythm ideas out of this example. We'll explore these ideas:

How Many Notes

A simple idea to start with: How many notes per measure, i.e. how "busy" is the melody? Measures 1 & 2 above have ~8 notes per measure; that's pretty busy, like a "patter song" or "proto-rap".

Verse vs. chorus: Notice that this "busy" melody is in the verse rather than the chorus. That's the general trend in songs; the verses have more notes/words to tell the story, and the chorus has fewer notes to make it simple and memorable.

Different styles. Even for a verse, this phrase is pretty busy, compared to the average song. I think that's because Dylan was a poet before he was a songwriter, and this phrase reminds me of 50's "beat poetry"; this is a "talking song". Many songs have a more "abstract" melody rhythm than this, without such a close connection between the rhythm and the words; but that's something you should see for yourself, by analyzing songs you like.

Exercises: You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
  • Analyze how many notes per measure appear in songs you like. Compare different parts of the songs (e.g. verse vs. chorus). Look for meaningful "themes" and "patterns".
  • Look at your own songs. How do your own notes-per-measure compare to songs you like? Is your own pattern of notes-per-measure "in a rut"?
  • Practice something different. If you find a notes-per-measure idea you like which you haven't used yourself, use it on purpose in a song or "exercise" of your own.

First Half, Second Half

Listeners constantly listen for the first half and second half of the "time chunks" in music. Other names for "first half" and "second half" are "statement and conclusion", "question and answer", or "call and response". This is fundamental to how people listen to music, and it happens at multiple "time levels" simultaneously:
  • The listener hears one measure, and listens for how the next measure completes a 2-measure phrase;
  • The listener hears a 2-measure phrase, and listens for how the next 2-measure phrase completes a 4-measure phrase;
  • The listener hears a 4-measure phrase, and listens for how the next 4-measure phrase completes an 8-measure "sentence".

measuremeasuremeasuremeasure measuremeasuremeasuremeasure
2-measure phrase2-measure phrase 2-measure phrase2-measure phrase
4-measure phrase4-measure phrase
8-measure phrase

When listening to music, the listener is looking for a meaningful pattern or "story" in the "time chunks", and that story is usually about these 1st and 2nd halves. Here's my interpretation of the "rhythm story" in our Like A Rolling Stone phrase:
  • Measures 1-2: The listener hears measure 1 as "busy". Then, measure 2 is also "busy". So, the basic "1st half, 2nd half" story for measures 1-2 is "2nd half repeats 1st half". A "repeating" story like this is perfectly acceptable and very very common; in fact, the listener needs to hear repeating ideas to hear "meaning" in the music. The story for this 2-measure chunk as a whole, then, is "busy".
  • Measures 3-4: Measure 3's story is "3 quick notes"; measure 4's story is "take a breath" (no notes). So, the story for this 2-measure chunk is "a few quick notes, then take a break".
  • Measures 1-4: Combining the above 2-measure chunks, the story for the whole 4-measure phrase is "busy statement followed by short response". Looking at the lyrics, you can see how this rhythm story perfectly complements the song's word story. Again, many songs have a more abstract rhythm story which is not closely tied to the word story; I think the close coupling of the rhythm and word stories here shows Dylan as a "word-oriented" songwriter.

  • Study songs you like and make up "1st half, 2nd half" rhythm stories to describe how you think the listener will interpret (subconsciously!) the 4-measure phrases. Your stories will probably be very different from my story for our Like A Rolling Stone phrase, but in general they can be very "abstract, geometric" stories which have no obvious relationship to the song's words.
  • Find the "1st half, 2nd half" rhythm stories in your own songs. How do they compare to songs you like? Are you in a rut?
  • Practice something different. Use the "1st half, 2nd half" rhythm stories you found in other people's songs, as inspiration to try some different rhythm stories in your own songs or exercises.

Accented Syllables

A melody is composed of rhythmically strong and rhythmically weak notes. The strong notes attract more "listener attention" than the weak notes. The rhythmically strong notes generally do one of these things:
  • They fall on a stronger counting point. For example, in a beat divided into 16th-notes ("1 e + a"), the "1" and "+" (which are on half-beats) are stronger counting points than the "off-16ths", "e" and "a".
  • Or, the rhythmically strong notes last longer than the weak notes.

The accented syllables in a song's words are generally on these rhythmically strong melody notes; if not, then the words sound awkward, like they don't fit the melody. The following shows the accented syllables (in bold), along with the counting points, for measures 1 & 2 of our Like A Rolling Stone phrase:

1   e + a   2   e   + a 3     e+ a     4 e + a
Once up-on a timeyou dressed sofine

1 e + a   2   e   +   a   3   e +   a   4 e + a
Threwthebumsa dime in yourprime

Notice how the accented syllables fall on rhythmically strong notes: that is, on notes which fall on stronger counting points, or last longer, than the notes around them.

If the words were created before the melody rhythm, then you usually need to craft the rhythm to place the accented syllables on rhythmically strong notes. You can do this by adding or removing a note from a beat, or by moving a note (or a few notes) forward or backward.

However, often, the melody rhythm comes before the words. This often happens when a melody is reused with different words. This happens all the time in the different verses of a song, but it also happens even within a single phrase; in fact it happens in measure 2 ("Threw the bums a dime...") above. Measure 2's melody is very similar to measure 1's; the main difference is the words.

When the melody rhythm comes before the words, often the words are then carefully chosen to fit that rhythm. But, you can also modify the rhythm to fit the new words. This happens in measure 2 above; it repeats the melody from measure 1, but it's modified to fit the new words in measure 2.

Analyze the melodies and words in songs you like. Find the rhythmically strong notes in the melody and the accented syllables in the words. I think you'll find that these strong notes and accented syllables usually match up.

Tip: When you're adding words to a melody, you can use word phrases that "don't fit" the melody if you modify the rhythm to make the words fit.

Dramatic Hesitation

In measure 3 of our Like A Rolling Stone phrase:
Did- n't you?
... notice how the melody rests for 2 beats (after the "busy" measures 1 & 2), then he sings "didn't you?" on beat 3, instead of singing "didn't you?" on the "obvious" beat 1. I call this dramatic hesitation (not a fancy technical term, I just made it up). It gets the listener's attention for the key "conclusion" of the 4-bar phrase, the question "didn't you?".

  • Analyze songs you like, looking for dramatic rhythm tricks: any detail of the melody rhythm which seems to add drama or emotion. This "dramatic hesitation" technique is just one example of such tricks.
  • Practice using these tricks in your own melodies. These are embellishments you can add to an already-written melody, so you could review melodies you've already written, especially any boring parts, and see if a dramatic rhythm trick could spice them up.


Our Like A Rolling Stone phrase also uses the syncopation techniques of anticipation and repeated threes. Look it over and find these techniques; if you can't, review Lesson 42: Syncopation.


1-7 (Intro & Pitch) +
8-18 (Major Scale) +
19-29 (Chord Progressions) +
30-34 (Hook Chords) +
35-41 (Written Notes) +
42-50 (Song Chorus) -
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone

Detailed Contents

Get Future Lessons

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