In 2008, Kanye West released 808s and Heartbreak—an album that, according to Pitchfork, has in many ways “become a touchstone for musicians interested in exploring emotional and artistic upheaval.” At some moments devastatingly stark and bleeding with grief, at others powerful, propelling, and by all counts seductive, it’s an absolutely genius album in both composition and organization. What’s more, it radiates the emotions that West describes having experienced at the time of its conception, when he was coping with the loss of his mother and a breakup with his fiancée: “808s came from suffering multitude losses at the same time—it’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it.”
One of the most powerful things about this album, and the way it really solidifies an emotional connection with listeners, is its bodily power. It’s like you’re living inside West’s head, attuned to the rhythms of his breaths and his heartbeats as he worked his way from moment to moment. The whole album has a very real pulse—much of which has to do with its percussive heartbeat, and, as the Chicagoist describes, “the metronomic tempos on the album serve to seduce and lull, and create the barren mood West has taken great pains to craft.”
That’s no surprise—the album’s title hints at the power of its own heartbeat by bearing reference to the Roland TR-808, a drum machine that, according to Slate, has woven its way through hip-hop history, and that is ubiquitous in the album itself.
Much like the 808’s artificial heartbeat created a powerful emotional ambiance in 808s and Heartbreak, people’s internal metronomes make their words all the more potent, whether they’re giving speeches, telling stories, or speaking poems—proving that rhythm is a massively powerful driving force behind good stories. Think about the metronomes that Shakespeare employed when he painted King Lear in the heat of his madness, or the way that a page of tight syntax and polysyndetic sentences can be attributed almost instantly to Hemingway. Next time you’re on Twitter, check out a few of the quotes your network posts and see if you can identify their speakers. You’d be surprised how often you’ll be right. We become familiar with the cadences we read and speak, and we associate them with the people to whom we pay the most attention.
I have long been fascinated by the power of rhythm, and drawn to harness it in my own work. In this piece, we’ll take a deep dive into meter and language to learn more about how you can incorporate rhythm into your next brand story.
Maybe it’s because our human experience is based around rhythmic structure (think about your heartbeat, your breathing, the ebb and flow of tides, the onset of night, the break of day) that, as we discovered the motor ability to speak, we crafted languages that are inherently rhythmic.
You can find examples of this everywhere, whether you’re eavesdropping on a strangers’ meeting at a coffee shop, walking through a busy city street, or strolling through the park. Last weekend, I found a great example in my seven-month-old nephew who, after listening to a chat between his mother and me, opened his mouth to speak: “DA da da da da da da da da da!” He had heard our speech patterns, and, although unable to form or comprehend the words we were saying, had figured out how to replicate our rhythms with his own.
It’s worth noting that not all languages have the same rhythm. While English is stress timed (that is, metered by the syllables we speak that are stressed and unstressed—channel everything you learned about iambic pentameter here), others, such as Spanish, are syllable timed. Japanese relies on the mora, essentially a determinant of syllable weight, as its unit of rhythmic measurement.
Let’s look at how you can gauge the rhythm of a piece in English, via stressed and unstressed syllables. Here are two lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
When you read it aloud, there’s a definite smoothness to it. That’s not only because each line contains the same number of syllables, but also because the stressed syllables are aligned. This pair of lines actually has a heartbeat:
And IN some PERfumes IS there MORE deLIGHT
Than IN the BREATH that FROM my MIStress REEKS.
Take out the words for a moment, and you can almost hear that pulse completely:
ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM
ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM
In that predictable rhythm there’s a musicality—and it’s that musicality that gives these lines that smoothness.
Of course, that’s not to say that you need to structure everything you write with an exact syllable count in every sentence. You’d go insane. But one major takeaway from this is that by working within the constraints of your next piece, paying attention to the rules of your language, and reading your work aloud, you can put more weight into each word you write, and organize things in the way that sounds finished. That alone is going to make your pieces resonate.
In Ellen Bryant Voight’s The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, there’s a great quote from Robert Jourdain: “A sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: It must convey a meaning by sound.”
Let’s see that in action. In 808s and Heartbreak, the song “Amazing” contains this lyric: “I’m the only thing I’m afraid of.”
It’s powerful, succinct, and it syncopates the rhythm in a masterful way. It embodies its meaning, it makes an emotional connection; it’s almost a story in itself.
Now imagine if it read differently. Something like: “The only thing I’m afraid of is myself.”
It’s weaker; almost discordant. The pulse of that sentence is half its power, and it loses that when you leave it to rely on what it’s saying alone. Suddenly it’s a story that ran on too long and never resolves. The kind of story I typically end with “…and then I found $5” before excusing myself from a conversation.
It’s easy to see that kind of thing when you’ve got a strong musical background to sing along to. But it’s not just poets and musicians: Speechwriters, even those who are writing for major speakers such as President Obama, keep their ears to the metronome to craft effective, moving speeches. By employing natural speech patterns (like iambic pentameter for English-language) and being mindful of overall cadence, these speech writers are able to help great speakers move whole crowds to their feet and bring people together. The results are undeniable:
As a brand storyteller, you’re working to bring rhythm and syntax together to give your piece a pulse.
So whether you’re writing a blog post, lyrics for the title song of your first EP, or the script for your next video, consider the way you talk and put weight on your sentences to bring out the musical, lifelike quality inherent to the way you speak. Let the constraints of your natural speech pattern reign you in and prevent you from letting a sentence ramble too long. Can you imagine if “I have a dream” had been “I have a vision for the future” instead?
And much in the way that a catchy beat is guaranteed to pick up your pace when you’re walking or get you up and grooving on the dance floor, a strong rhythm in your story will make your readers much more likely to act. Think about the way in which crowds rise and cheer for powerful speeches. They’re so moved by the words and the music in which they’re immersed that they can’t help themselves. In that way, rhythm builds community—which is an absolute goal for brand stories.
If you ever find yourself struggling, try reading your trickier sentences out loud. Get a feel for how they roll off your tongue, and see if there’s any way that the underlying rhythms could be misread or mistaken (and thus ambiguous to another reader or listener).
Every living, breathing thing has a heartbeat. Keep your finger on story’s wrist, and feel your audience’s pulse pick up.