Chants depend on rhythm for their effectiveness: think of Queen’s “We will, we will ROCK YOU [stamp] [stamp, stamp clap]”.
Protesters on a march or outside a key building will often start chanting, [Question] “What do we want?” [Answer] “Equal pay” (or whatever it is they want) [Question] “When do we want it?” [Answer] “NOW!”
RHYTHM is one of the most powerful devices we can use, to get our listeners’ attention.
REPETITION is also effective – as both Queen and the protesters described above realised.
Rhythm is a pattern of differently stressed sounds – generally either STRONG stresses or WEAK stresses. Let’s use DAH for a strong stress, and DIT for a weak one. So a toddler having a tantrum might say, “I want a toy”; what (s)he will probably do is stress the TOY word, and the pattern would be DIT DIT DIT DAH – “I want a TOY“.
If another child had a toy and ours wanted one as well, (s)he might say, “I want a toy” in the pattern DAH DIT DIT DIT – “I want a toy”.
If our toddler’s parent tried to reason with him/her, saying, “You don’t need a toy” the toddler might say, “I want a toy” with the stress on want – DIT DAH DIT DIT – “I WANT a toy”.
Not only does rhythm attract our listeners’ attention, it also helps to convey more exactly what we mean – as in the three different versions of “I want a toy” above.
Whenever we speak we use rhythm – the stress pattern of how I would say what I’ve just written is DIT-DAH-DIT DIT DAH DIT DIT DAH-DIT : Whenever we speak we use rhythm.
Each syllable of each word gets either a strong or a weak stress. “Whenever” has three syllables – when, ev and er. We (strong) stress the second syllable, and leave the other two with weak stresses: whenEVer.
Many words in English are only one syllable long (They’re called monosyllables). The stress we put on them depends on what we want to say – see the “toy” example above.
Rappers of course make the most extensive use of rhythm. Much of Shakespeare’s writing can be used as rap, because he too was very aware of the rhythm of how people speak. Here’s the opening of his play The Merchant of Venice, where Antonio is describing his depression to his friends:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
If you enjoy rapping, try saying these lines as rap.
Most of Shakespeare’s verse – but by no means all of it – falls into a pattern of DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT DAH – five pairs of syllables in each line, each pair a weak stress followed by a strong one. Some people have said that that is the pattern closest to the everyday speech of English-speaking people. (It’s known as iambic pentametre – just in case you’re interested.)
Try this: write down some examples of things you might say in everyday situations. (Write quite largely, as you need to be able to mark each syllable.) Now listen to yourself saying these things as you normally would, and put a mark above each syllable to show whether it’s WEAK or STRONG.
Mark weak syllables with a little dip-mark: Ῠ or Ῐ
Mark strong syllable with a little straight line: Ῡ or Ῑ
You’re well on your way to analysing poetry now – but I hope you’ll also have more fun when listening to the way you, and others, speak.