Just like a single musical note can be short, long or anything in between, so can a chord. That means that just like melodies, chords also have a rhythm. This is known more specifically as ‘harmonic rhythm’ and it is crucial to the overall effect it has on our music.
So let’s have a proper definition of harmonic rhythm: Harmonic rhythm is the rate at which chords change. It is the duration of the chords within a chord progression.
Of course this doesn’t mean that every chord in a progression must be the same length. There are chords that are persistent for a few bars while others are fleeting – changing in half a beat. Some progressions are slow, some fast, some are long, some short, some repeat and some don’t.
The variety in harmonic rhythms is endless and that’s why our lesson today is so important for music makers.
Why the Term ‘Harmonic Rhythm’?
Just in case, let’s quickly clarify where the term comes from. In music, ‘harmony’ is anything that has to do with chords and chord progressions. ‘Rhythm’ is all about when notes are sounded and for how long.
So ‘harmonic rhythm’ is about the rhythm of the harmony. In other words, it’s the duration of chords and chord progressions. This, of course, has a huge impact on the character of the music so let’s see exactly how it works.
How Harmonic Rhythm Works
We will be looking at some real examples later on in this lesson but first, here’s a little game we can play with a simple chord progression. This will help us understand how harmonic rhythm works really quickly.
A Simple Chord Progression
Here we have a simple chord progression common in many musical styles. We’re going to set its harmonic rhythm in 4 different ways to see how it changes. This is the original progression without any meter:
Harmonic Rhythm: Version 1
Now here it is in common meter. Since the A minor chord occurs on the strong beat (2nd bar) and is twice as long as the surrounding chords, it feels like an arrival. The arrival is only temporary however and the real conclusion comes on the fifth bar, where the tonic chord occurs on the strong beat.
Harmonic Rhythm: Version 2
Here the progression is also in common meter but the effect is quite different. The first chord is on an upbeat and the A minor chord simply goes by in passing. The ending, moreover, is slightly weaker than the previous version because the final chord is on the third beat of its bar (rather than the strong first beat).
Harmonic Rhythm: Version 3
The progression here is also different from the other two. From the very beginning it sets us up for something completely different because it’s in 3/4 meter. The long E minor chord makes it feel like a temporary arrival which then quickly takes us to that final C major chord through F and G7.
Harmonic Rhythm: Version 4
Changing the meter and the time signature obviously changes the entire mood of the music. But even within the same meter, a chord progression can have an entirely new character if the rhythm is different.
Here is another example of the same progression also in 3/4 meter. Yet again, it’s completely different from all the other examples. This one has a harmonic rhythm pattern that emphasizes the 2nd beat of the bar.
This is the importance of harmonic rhythm! Of course, it works hand-in-hand with chord progressions so be sure to read this lesson called ‘What is tonality in music and why it matters’ to get a fuller picture.
Harmonic Rhythm vs. Melody
As you know, chord progressions seldom work by themselves. They’re usually meant to accompany and support melodies on top. What’s interesting is that these melodies have their own rhythm too.
So in music we often have at least two levels of rhythm happening at the same time: the melodic rhythm and the harmonic rhythm:
- The harmonic rhythm is what we’ve been playing around with above: it’s the rhythm of the chords.
- The melodic rhythm is just the same but instead of the chords, it’s the duration of the notes of the melody.
So let’s see how this works. If we had melodies on top of the progressions from our little game above, they would all be different. Here is a melody I just wrote on top of the first version of our chord progression:
And here is a melody on top of the fourth version. It’s exactly the same chord progression but the melody is completely different (even though I kept most of the same notes).
Once again, this is how significant harmonic rhythm is. The choice of when to change a chord is just as important as which chord to change into!
Examples of Harmonic Rhythm in Classical Music
As we’ve learned above, the variety in harmonic rhythm is endless. So in this section, we’re going to look at some of the more common harmonic rhythms and their effects on the music by the great composers.
If you’re interested in this kind of musical composition, be sure to check out this lesson called ‘A Beginner’s Guide to 4-part Harmony‘. The composers of these next examples were masters at it.
This first example is by Schumann. It’s his Träumerei from Kinderszenen, Op. 15. This is a wonderful example of how many different rhythms can occur at the same time.
Here we have a main melody on top, an accompaniment and a low supporting bass line, all with their own rhythms.
At the same time, all these lines are based on a chord progression and it too has its own rhythm, that is, the harmonic rhythm. Some chords are used for more than a measure, others for a beat or two, and others still for just half a beat.
What’s really fascinating is that the harmonic rhythm is unique. It is unlike any of the melodic rhythms above it (although quite similar to the bass):
This extract from Schumann also reveals that music composed of several melodies playing at the same time, often has a simple harmonic rhythm. This allows the melodies to play around on top of a firm harmonic structure underneath.
As a principle, it holds true in music from Bach to Shostakovich and beyond.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C, Op. 53
Let’s move on to an entirely different example. In contrast to the Schumann extract, these four bars consists of a new chord for every new note of the melody. So the rhythm of the melody and of the chord progression is the same:
Dvorak: Tempo di Valse, Op. 22
This next example is by Dvorak and it’s composed of a simple accompaniment. Rather than a new chord for every new note like the Beethoven example above, we have a new chord in every bar. This kind of regular harmonic rhythm is typical of dance music of the 17th and 18th centuries (which this piece is imitating).
Observe how the accompaniment (though beautiful) lacks rhythmic interest so that the listeners’ attention remains focused on the melody.
Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 62 no. 4
Here is yet another very different example from any we’ve seen so far. This extract is full of melodic activity but with almost no change in harmonic rhythm. This gives the music a certain lightness or spaciousness that allows it to build up freely to the high D notes.
Examples of Harmonic Rhythm in Popular Music
In popular genres, harmonic rhythm tends to be simpler than its classical counterpart but all in all, it works just in the same way:
- Slower tempos can accommodate more chord changes while quicker tempos tend to do with less
- The more chord changes there are, the more active (or the busier) the music feels even if the tempo is the same or slower.
- Keep in mind that simpler doesn’t mean worse! Different styles have different purposes and different ways of achieving them.
Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley
You’re not seeing double. Bo Diddley wrote this song in 1955 and he named it after himself. This is an interesting example because there is no harmonic rhythm to speak of. The whole song, though short, is practically just one chord.
The audio for these examples are stripped down to just melody and chords so that we can really hear the harmonic rhythm. YouTube links to the originals are provided below.
This doesn’t make it boring as we might suspect at first. Just like the Mendelssohn example above, this music is interesting through other means. In this case it’s elements such as the guitar strumming, the several layers of percussion and the vocals.
Abba: Take a Chance on Me
In this song we get more chord changes but still they are not frequent. As we’ve already seen, the sparse harmonic rhythm gives the music a sense of space. It gives the melody and the lyrics a sense of lightness.
The harmonic rhythm hints that while the song is going somewhere, it’s in no rush to do so.
Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World
In this popular song sung by Louis Armstrong, the harmonic rhythm gives us a more traditional sense of direction, of reaching a destination (in this case the lyric “world” sung on the chord F).
Observe how the chord changes are fixed every half note beat we get a new chord. This steady pattern gives the progression a certain stability.
Nirvana: About a Girl
Now here’s an interesting example. This extract also consists of 2 chords per bar with a steady pattern. But we don’t get the same sense of direction as we do with ‘What a Wonderful World’. Listen to the example and try to figure out why this is so.
The reason is that the chords are the same. Instead of sense of direction towards the end of the phrase, we’re going around in a cycle. Rather than approaching some destination, we are in a loop enjoying the moment (or perhaps, the story told by the lyrics).
This reminds us that although we’re talking here about when to change chords, it’s also important which chord we’re changing into.
The Jackson 5: I Want You Back
Finally, here is an example from a great song from 1969 by The Jackson 5. Notice the effect that the harmonic rhythm has when the chords start changing on every beat (as from bar 3 of the extract).
While the first two chords took a whole bar each, the next 7 beats get 7 new chords. These quick chord changes produce a good sense of moving forward. It also makes the song seem somewhat busier, quickly progressing towards the end of the phrase.
As we’ve seen today, the possibilities in harmonic rhythm are endless. As you’re listening to some of your favorite music, pay attention to how often chords change and how this impacts the music.
Also experiment for yourself by rewriting any simple chord progression 3 or 4 times every time with a different harmonic rhythm. How does changing the harmonic rhythm affect the character of the progression?