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Hermit Crab and tension quality

Hermit Crab is the band that I’m writing for and playing in. It’s there that I’m working on addressing issues of rhythm and meter. Here’s a snippet of something that I’ve written for the band: 

You can see the relationship between what the drums are doing, and what the two guitars are doing. The drums highlight the rhythm of guitar 1 with a rimshot on the snare, and a floor tom highlights the rhythm of guitar 2. 

Notation, in this example, communicates a certain quality of tension. Imagine in your minds ear, the absence of quarter note triplets in the drums. Or the absence of the same in guitar 2. Rhythmic agreement between instruments disappears, and rhythmic tension changes.

But how?

Tension quality

It changes in terms of quality. Presence and/or absence of identical rhythms in different instruments changes the timbral signature of the that rhythm. Any rhythm can be given a timbral signature, and the mutation of that signature by the addition or removal of instruments changes the quality of the tension produced by that rhythm.

Dynamics are also effective in altering tension quality. Rhythms that create different tempos – the guitars in this example – can be given a different tension profile using varying dynamics.

Dynamics are also effective in altering tension quality. Rhythms that create different tempos – the guitars in this example – can be given a different tension profile using varying dynamics. The following example uses fairly extreme contrast in order to make the point. It can be a lot more subtle. It can also be a lot more complex.

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Simultaneous meters

Can we imply different simultaneous meters in a single-line rhythm, or do we need multiple rhythmic streams?

What’s the time signature?

The second bar in the following example can be experienced as 3/16 or as 4/4 with accents every three sixteenth notes. Since the first bar strongly establishes 4/4, most people hear the second bar as accents in 4/4 unless they make the decision to shift their perception to 3/16 before hearing it.

Simultaneous meters

Hearing both 4/4 and 3/16 simultaneously would most likely not occur unless the passage were written differently. In two parts, for example:

To hear both meters simultaneously, each part would need to be as independent as possible. This can be done by defining different timbre, register, dynamics, etc. for each part. The less that you define these things, the more you get this:

A single composite rhythm, which generates no ambiguity, and a lot less tension than the communication of separate, simultaneous meters described above.

Tension quality

But if we do imply different meters in a single line, how does this affect tension when we add more lines? Clearly, more tension is generated simply by adding more notes. But I’m interested in quality of tension, not quantity.

This question of “how” interests me more than “how much”. How can the same level of tension in different situations have different qualities?  Are those qualities determined solely by the relationship between meter and rhythm? Or are they determined by factors beyond meter and rhythm, like timbre, register, etc?

There’s a lot to explore here.

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Syncopation, polyrhythm, and groove

There are three basic types of tension expressed in the relation between rhythm and meter: syncopation, polyrhythm, and groove.


Syncopation challenges our perception of meter. In other words, meter tells us where things are most likely to occur; syncopation subverts those expectations.

Generally, we expect rhythmic emphasis to occur on the downbeat (otherwise known as strong beats), as opposed to upbeats, or weak beats.

Here’s what no syncopation looks like:

We can syncopate this by simply removing beat 3. This emphasizes the weak part of the 2nd beat.

This example is more syncopated; all weak beats are emphasized, resulting in more tension. 

There’s a lot more to say about syncopation, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, let’s move on to polyrhythm.


Sometimes meter is only weakly expressed; sometimes it’s not expressed at all. The rhythm in question may simply not communicate a meter, in which case the musicians rely on the listener to be able to predict the metrical framework.

Cross-rhythm is an example of this. Cross-rhythm occurs when a rhythmic pattern suggests more than one meter. An example is 3 against 4 – three equally spaced beats played against four equally spaced beats.

Is this in 3/4 or 4/4? Depending on how you listen, it can be one or the other. The ambiguity created by this phenomenon can create a lot of tension; and adding more layers with different meters adds more tension.

Metric displacement

Metric displacement occurs when a rhythmic motif starts  in a particular location…

and is then shifted to start in a different location.

This causes new relationships between layers. They interlock in new ways, and create different levels of complexity.

A simple example would be to imagine the first rhythm played in two separate parts… 

and then the first rhythm superimposed on the displaced rhythm.


Again, there’s lots more to say, but that will come later.


Groove can be as simple as a drum kit repeating a 2-bar pattern, or the complex interplay of a rhythm section. It involves some degree of syncopation, along with cross-rhythm and metric displacement; it is continuously repeated, and it makes you want to move.

In the context of continuous repetition, then, the violation of expectation (tension) found in syncopation and polyrhythm become pleasurable. This is good news, but makes me wonder how long a rhythmic unit can be repeated before it’s no longer pleasurable. In other words, when does it become boring?

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Rhythm, Meter, and Tension

Rhythmic tension is created by the interaction between what is heard (rhythm), and by how the brain anticipates musical structure (meter). Meter creates expectations. Rhythm either subverts or supports them. Subversion creates tension, and it’s tension that I’m interested in.

Before I get into that, a further distinction needs to be made between meter and rhythm. Here’s what everyone agrees with:

Rhythm, Meter, Pulse

Rhythm is considered as sound patterns in time. This is stuff that we hear – notes of varying durations thrown together to create patterns that draw us in, create interest, compel us to move.

Meter doesn’t exist until we construct it in our minds when hearing rhythmic patterns. When we start tapping our feet in equally spaced pulses (or beats), we express meter physically. Some of those pulses may be accented more than others. This phenomenon of accented, equally spaced pulses is meter.

Meter is made of conceptual timepoints. We don’t hear these timepoints in the physical world; they are simply used by our minds to organize rhythm. Pulse we hear and feel in the physical world.

So we experience meter – a regular, periodic sound physicalized as pulse – by paying attention to sound patterns in time, otherwise known as rhythm. Meter helps us to perceive rhythm, and we physicalize it by moving some part of our body in time to it.

This is interesting. Without rhythm, we wouldn’t perceive meter. Without meter we couldn’t organize rhythm. Rhythm gives rise to meter, which allows us to make sense of rhythm.


This stuff is important for composers. If we are interested in controlling tension, then it helps to understand how the rhythms we write create and subvert meter. A distinguishing feature of meter is the relationship between accented and unaccented beats. Constructing meter, then, requires that we determine these accents.

But what determines metric accent? Can composers create metric accent consciously through use of rhythmic accent, or is metric accent determined by musical style alone (i.e. accents on the 2nd and 4th beats in pop styles)?

Listening experience favours the latter. This can be subverted, however, if the composer simply chooses accents that aren’t the norm, and places these accents in the same place in each bar. This can seem a bit forced, but it’s important to play with this if we’re to move beyond conventional accent patterns that may exist simply because of centuries of listening habits.

The needs of the composition may not require conventional accent patterns. And alternate accent patterns may create new rhythmic ideas. No harm in experimenting.

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Create more by using less

Constrain yourself

Sometimes it’s hard to get started because there’s just so much you could do. When you’re in that space, think about eliminating possibilities.


Progression variation

For instance, you might have two chord progressions that you really like. You’re thinking of using one for the verse and the other for the chorus, but it doesn’t seem to be working. They simply don’t flow together.

Just eliminate one. It doesn’t matter which one. Tell yourself you’ll use the other one in another song.

Now take the one you’ve kept and explore the possible chord sequence combinations. For instance, the following chords – G Am Em D – could be combined as a progression in the following ways:


  1. G Am Em D
  2. G Am D Em
  3. G D Em, Am
  4. G D Em Am
  5. Am G Em D
  6. Am Em D G
  7. Am D Em G
  8. Am D G Em


Use the same process starting the progression with Em and then with D. At the end, you’ll have 16 progressions you can use. Some will be similar to others, but some will be different enough that they can be used side by side. In other words, one can be for the verse and one can be for the chorus.

Stay open to adding an extra chord if you think it’s necessary. Constraining yourself should be about generating ideas. This means that, when appropriate, you get to step outside of the box you’ve created.


Chord Duration

Another technique is to determine how long each chord can be. To keep it simple, stick to either 2 beats or 4 beats.

For instance:

G / / / | Am / / / |Em / / / | D / / / | can become


G / Am / | Am / / /|Em / D / | D / / / | .


If you repeat portions of the progression, more possibilities present themselves.

For instance,


G / Am / | G / Am | Em / / / | D / / / | or


G / Am / | G / Em / | G / / / | D / / / |


Combining progression variation and chord duration helps you generate a ton of possibilities. The work is always to find variety in a small amount of material.

When you do this, you find yourself writing more stuff. That other progression that you wanted to use for the chorus now becomes a completely new song.



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How to start

Sometimes it’s easy to write. Sometimes it’s really hard.

When it’s hard, you need a way to get started. Try this.


Rip someone off

Everyone does it. Some people do it consciously. Others unconsciously write something they’ve heard before. This is really common when you just sit down with the guitar and start noodling. That usually leads to playing something you’ve played or heard before.

Of course, consciously taking a big chunk of someone’s work is shitty. But it’s perfectly fine to take a fragment.

For instance, you could take a single bar somewhere in the middle of the verse (or wherever), and build some ideas around that.

And remember, we’re talking about a first draft here. By the time you finish polishing the whole song, the bar you borrowed will probably be miles from where it started. It often changes as the things around it changes.

Borrowing people’s stuff is meant as a starting point, not the end. And if it doesn’t change a lot, then it acts like an homage to the other artist.

That’s a nice thing. Especially because 99% of the song is yours.


Beyond the fragment

Listen to your favourite song, and ask yourself why you like it so much. Is it the hook, the bass line, the arrangement, the lyrics? Does the chorus do something dramatic like lose the bass line, go to double-time, use a lot of silence?

You could use any one of those elements as a general idea for inspiration. The point is to really listen, and consciously list the things you like. Keep notebook for this. That way you collect a set of ideas and tools that you can use in any number of songs, not just the one you’re working on now.

The notebook becomes a place you go when you feeling stuck.


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