What comes first, the rhythm or the melody?

Chickens,  eggs and potato peelings

This might look like a chicken-and-egg question, but I don’t think it is. There are times when both rhythm and melody arrive simultaneously, but for me that is rare, and tends to be when I’m doing something unrelated to work, like peeling potatoes or washing up. Also those tunes do not tend actually to be useful, as they don’t have words, or to put it another way, they do not fit a given line of words that you might need to make a tune for. (And I always worry that it might just be something I am half-remembering.)  I am probably chucking out a string quartet or an organ voluntary with my potato peelings, but when I sit down to write a psalm setting, I have to start with the words, as I have said before.

Learning about rhythm

That’s one reason why the rhythm comes first;  but I think that is where I should be starting, as we learn about rhythm before we learn about melody.  The first rhythm we learn is our mother’s heartbeat; the first counter-rhythm, her footsteps.  When we play with babies, we use rhythm games, patting and clapping.  Lots of nursery rhymes have rhythm but no tune (or a tune that varies widely, as each family has developed its own).  Often the tune is only half there, as the rhyme ends in a scurry of tickling or mock-gobbling up (This little pig went to market, Shoe a little horse, We’re going on a bearhunt etc).  At the risk of stating the obvious, poetry and verse of any kind have rhythm but no tune, and written-out songs are immediately different : compare Hiawatha to Summer is i-cumen in, or a Shakespeare sonnet to one of the songs in the plays, for example.

Rhythm instruments

Drums were surely the earliest musical instrument to be invented.  Almost anything can be a drum or a rhythm instrument (witness the amazing show Stomp which I saw years ago in London, still going strong), and human beings are hardwired to hear a rhythm in almost any ongoing sound just as they can hear a pitch note in a machine noise. Castanets are little tiny drums, tambourines are drums with a tinklefrill. Koreans, Georgians and many other nations have whole concerts of drumming, and they are very exciting.

Lullabies our first melodies

Melody comes a little later, although again it probably originates with our mothers and lullabies (and you may pat and stroke a bump, but you don’t usually croon to it much before it’s born).  Anything more exciting than a lullaby is not necessarily a good idea at this stage, though I would argue that here again rhythm probably comes across to the baby more clearly than a melody.  We were singing Monteverdi Vespers when our middle daughter was on the way, and she would get uncomfortably active in the Nisi Dominus.

The psalms: singing the words

But I’m writing tunes for psalms, and my first ‘given’ is the words.  Spoken words have a natural rhythm, which affects the sense and, even more, affects whether the sense can be quickly grasped (try reading anything aloud on a unaccented monotone, and see whether your hearer can understand; it’s surprisingly difficult).   So I try to find the natural rhythm of the words, and I am grateful every day to the people involved in the production of the wonderful Grail Psalter, especially Philippa Craig, who ought to have been made a saint already.  Sometimes the Response is a special difficulty, if it’s out of a different Psalm, or even from one of St Paul’s letters, for example.  The tunes for the verses and Response need to go together, obviously, but sometimes it can be difficult to effect this.

Tunes need bones

Once I have the rhythm, the tune comes in, and they are both equally important.  The beat is the backbone which supports the flesh.  Without it, the tune wanders aimlessly and lacks shape; and without the tune, the words cannot take shape on the scaffolding of the beat.  You need both;  and the tempo is important too, but I’m lumping that in with the rhythm for now.   Classic jazz works because each musician has a grasp of the shape of the whole phrase and its length – at its most obvious, the actual number of bars.  You can put all sorts of furniture and decorations inside a house, but the walls have to be upright and the roof secure before you start playing with the furniture positions.

Tunes to dance to

This is why I often try to give my psalm setting a folktune feel, because folk music values both melody and rhythm, and is easy enough for everyone to join in.  Many folktunes (and a lot of carols) were actually dances.  Above all, people can work together if there is rhythm : 123, Go! ; sea shanties; tug-of-war;  even the Mak’tar Chant of strength in Galaxy Quest.  It helps a group to sing a rest correctly if they do something bodily to mark the beats when they are learning the music.  Kenyan choirs I have known do this instinctively;  it can be difficult to get a choir of Anglo-Saxon origin to swing its hips (especially the men), but clicking your fingers is just as good, and you need to feel where the rests are just as much as the notes.  Like drawing, when you are supposed to draw the spaces between shapes rather than the shapes (something I am not good at, but I can do it with rhythm).

Pace and piety

I love it when one of the congregation babies starts to dance during the music.  David danced before the Lord, and he started with folk tunes.  I’m not altogether convinced by the sort of liturgical dance I have seen, because it tends to be done at people rather than by people, and I think the point about liturgy is that we all do it together, especially the music.  I don’t think that slow music is intrinsically more religious than fast music, but having spent a lot of time in Orthodox countries, I can tell you that this is definitely a minority view.  It is like the argument that sad poems or novels are basically more authentic than happy ones, which is not true.  Most teenagers write sad poetry.  It is much harder to write well about happy things (one of the reasons why the Bible is a bit unbalanced).

Rhythm as a power tool

Rhythm is a way to make patterns, and this is how humans create art.  Rhythm plus words is poetry, rhythm plus notes is music, rhythm plus movements is dance.  It gives form and shape, it is primaeval as well as artificial in the best sense.  It is creative.  In the beginning, all that there is is darkness and stillness.  Then the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters, and it is not random, but measured and purposeful. God dances the universe into being, by rhythm.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

One thought on “What comes first, the rhythm or the melody?”

Comments are closed.