Count to four over and over again. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, etc… Next clap your hands every time you say 1 and 3. It feels like you are walking or marching a little bit. Now only clap on 2 and 4. It feels more like dancing or swinging. The way to write a successful song is to make the audience feel a certain way. The rhythm you choose can affect and change the way that an audience interprets and feels about the words you write in a song.
There are a lot of rhythms from other cultures that add a subtle difference. Count to four again, but this time add the word “and” in between each number. 1, and 2, and 3, and 4, and 1, and 2, and 3, and 4, and 1, and 2, etc… Now clap your hands only on “4, and 1.” It feels different doesn’t it. When you are writing songs, you are not just writing words for the mind. You are writing to communicate to the audience’s body as well.
Now instead of counting to four over and over, count to three over and over. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, etc… Only clap on 1. This is what is known as a three-four (i.e. 3/4) time signature. Sometimes this is also called a waltz.
I am oversimplifying this topic just so you can start thinking about it, but there are many other time signatures. Instead of counting to three, count to two and clap on the 2’s only. This is the two-four (i.e. 2/4) time signature. It is used a lot in slower songs such as ballads.
There are some other time signatures that might sound odd to your body and ears but work very well in some circumstances. The instrumental tune, Take Five (Desmond, 1959), made popular by Dave Brubeck is written in five-four (5/4). Dave Brubeck was a very deeply religious jazz pianist who joined the Catholic Church later in his life.
The human heart beats 60 to 70 times per minute. It is no coincidence that most popular music has a tempo where the pulse happens 120 to 140 times per minute, mathematically doubling the human heart beat. It is easy for our bodies to naturally pick up the songs communicative qualities at those popular tempos.
In general, a faster song sounds more lively, energetic, youthful, and joyful, although a faster song can also communicate anger and irrational hate. Slower songs are generally either sad or contemplative and can allow your meaningful lyrics to sink into the audience’s ears more easily.
Pick your rhythms, time signatures and tempos carefully to match the content of the lyrics that you write to optimize the message you wish to communicate.