2A Poetic Meter

We are about to begin a project which will ask you to set a poem to a meter and a melody. To do so, we must first review the basics of poetic meter.

Poetic Meter: Standard Definitions

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I have borrowed a page from the U Penn English Department webpage, which has a perfectly clear and succint summation of poetic meter and the poetic foot in English poetry. I copy, with thanks, their discussion here:

Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry

English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the tradition al "/" and "x." Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.

The meters with two-syllable feet are

Meters with three-syllable feet are

Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, 2 feet is a dimeter, and so on--trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), and octameter (8). The number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter. A good example of trochaic monometer, for example, is this poem entitled "Fleas":


Here are some more serious examples of the various meters.

iambic pentameter (5 iambs, 10 syllables)

trochaic tetrameter (4 trochees, 8 syllables)

anapestic trimeter (3 anapests, 9 syllables)

dactylic hexameter (6 dactyls, 17 syllables; a trochee replaces the last dactyl)

Applying Poetic Metric Ideas to Musical Rhythms

A central aspect of musical composition is understanding the relationship between poetic and musical principles. Music is interconnected with language. Composers who speak different languages write music differently, even when the music is purely instrumental.

In order to set a poem to music, you must understand its poetic foot and find the meter and the stress points.

If we take the examples above, we can use them to show how you would begin to notate a poem using Western musical notation symbols. From there, we can then go on to discuss how to use that rhythm in support of a melody.

Iambic Settings (Two Syllable Foot)

Notice that Iambic meter has the stress on the even syllable. This implies that the odd syllables must be treated as weak beats or off beats, with the stressed syllables falling the strong beats of the measure.

To set any phrase or poem with an Iambic meter, then, you typically start with the first syllable as a pick-up to the measure (formally known as an anacrusis), and then continue the pattern across the measures, with the odd syllables most often falling on beats in two and four (or eighth note divisions) and the even syllables falling on beats one and three, in common time.

This is the opening of a Shakespeare sonnet...

A few observations:

"That" is placed as a pickup.

At the end of the first line (at the end of of the first iambic pentameter), we use a longer note to separate out the phrases.

In a word like "yellow," we quicken the rhythm, with two-eights tied to a quarter, because we say the word "yellow" faster in normal speech.

It would be more fluid to next take this rhythm and, without changing the basic stresses, add dotted quarters and eights to make it a more interested and singable line:

Trochaic Settings (Two Syllable Foot)

The Trochaic rhythm is the opposite. Here, the stress falls on the first syllable, and continues with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables on the odd and even beats, respectively. This would correspond to a setting in 4/4 time with the odd syllables falling on beats one and three.

This is from Longfellow's A Psalm of Life

You'll see here a few choices. It would be very dull to just set this all in even quarter notes, although you could! So I stretched out the 'not' and also chose to elongate "life,", which then required me to rush "is but an" in order to keep the metric foot and have "empty" land on the downbeat of the next measure.

There are many ways this line could be set, but it can't go against the basic Trochaic rhythm, and it must adhere to the trochaic tetrameter. This requires then that "tell," "mourn," "life," and "emp" must occur on the strong beats of the measure.

Spondiaic Settings (Two Syllable Foot)

This is similiar to the Trochaic settings, except that there are three strong stresses in a row. This still implies 4/4 time, but there is a more forceful quarter note pulse, with the second quarter note being almost as strong as beats one and three. Only beat four is unstressed.

From Tennyson Break, Break, Break

Here, I tried to weaken the fourth beat by delaying it as long as possible in the first measure, as befits the spondiac pattern.

Anapestic Settings (Three Syllable Foot)

This meter would typically be set with a 3/4 meter. The first two syllables would be on beats two and three of a pick-up bar, and then the first stressed syllable would fall on the downbeat of the first measure. The 3/4 pattern would then continue for as long as the poem kept this essential rhythm.

For 3/4 time, it seems best to quote a standard waltz song. Here's how you'd notate Emmylou Harris' Tennesee Waltz.

Clearly, the stresses fall on the down beats, and we see the clear anapestic meter of x x /. Often, then, this meter will start with pick-up notes, preceding the downbeat on the first stressed syllable. The meter will usually flow from the initial statement. Here, the rhythm varies slightly, but the overall stress points remain intact.

Dactylic Settings (Three Syllable Foot)

Finally, one would typically set a Dactylic poem to a meter of 6/8. In 6/8 time, every other stressed syllable is slightly lessed stressed than the opening syllable, allowing for that sing-song 6/8 rocking rhythm:

This is from Longfellow's A Tale of Arcadie

Clearly, the dactylic "/ xx /xx" is evident here. Notice that in measure two, "eval" gets an eigth and a quarter, because we say that word more quickly then "hemlocks," which then gets the opposite setting: a quarter followed by an eighth. Otherwise, the poem moves along in steady eighth notes grouped in threes.

Setting a poem to music

If you have ever written a song, and I know some of you have, and I've written lots, one is not thinking in notation. Once simply makes up some words (and at the best of times, the words and the chords and the melody all happen at once), along with music and harmony, and a song arises from the creative heart and mind.

But at some point, if you're serious about your songwriting, you might find a need to write it down in musical notation. This will help you to do this.

If you aren't oriented towards songwriting, you still are someone who listens to songs, and who perhaps sings in choirs. This exercise will help you better appreciate the relationship between poetic rhythm and rhythmic poetry.

The next page will take you through the process.

Next: Setting a poem to a melody.

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