What Is Rhythm?

The word rhythm comes from the Greek word “rhythmos,” meaning measured motion. Both spoken and written language contain rhythmic patterns that add depth and variation while accentuating the work’s meaning.

Although it is an essential part of poetry, rhythm is an often overlooked, but no less important, feature of prose writing, including both creative and non-fiction genres. Think of a rousing speech or sermon. What makes those narratives compelling in large part is their “music.”

An ability to use rhythm correctly in one of the main things that makes a writer stand out. It’s a skill that comes innately to some people, but it can also be developed over a long period of time through practice. Reading, both aloud and to oneself, is one of the best ways to develop a sense of rhythm as a writer.

How Do You Identify Rhythm in Writing?

Prosody is the study of rhythmic patterns in language. There are five main meters, also known as “feet”:

  • Iams occur when the stress lies on the second syllable of the metrical foot: “Becáuse I coúld not stóp for deáth,” begins Emily Dickinson’s poem.
  • Trochees are when the stress is on the first syllable: “Í can’t stóp this féeling, déep insíde of mé,” sings the group Blue Suede.
  • A spondee has two syllables stressed in a row: “Bréak, bréak, bréak/On thy cóld gréy stónes, Óh Sea!” Both lines of this poem by Alfred Tennyson contain spondees.
  • A dactyl is three syllables, the first stressed and the second two unstressed: “Glórious dáy of the greátest feast” is a phrase that contains two dactyls in a row.
  • Anapests are the opposite of dactyls. The first two syllables are unstressed, and the last is stressed: “In the wáy that he nóticed, we knéw we were lóst.”

While free verse and prose determine their own rhythmic patterns, combinations of these five meters are used in different poetic forms. A sonnet, for instance, is composed of iambic pentameter. That means that each line contains five metrical feet, for a total of 10 syllables, with the stress on the second syllable.

Some variations in meter are permissible, and some are even conventional. Adding an eleventh syllable to a sonnet line is one example of an accepted and often used variation. When a poet alters an established meter, as Shakespeare notably did, it is a signal to the reader to pay close attention for a change in meaning or emphasis.

More Examples of Rhythm

Rhythm Examples 1. Shakespeare’s famous sonnet #130 illustrates the iambic meter:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Rhythm Examples 2. The beginning of Henry Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha, is written in trochees:

Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?

Rhythm Examples 3. The first two stanzas of “Broom Sage,” by Sara Kendrick, contain a number of spondees — the title itself is a spondee:

“Broom Sage”

When I was young the broom sage grew so tall
It towered over me, fuzzy tickling
Right there in front of momma harvesting
Harvesting just enough sage for a broom

Broom sage to sweep the hearth clean of debris
A hearth white washed with Georgia kaolin
Nothing to cover the dirty black sooted bricks
In summer even the inside was white washed

(View all literary devices)