backbeats are the new iambic pentameter

I was thinking about why literary heavy-hitters like Shakespeare and Pushkin prefer to write in iambic instead of trochee, but I suppose before I go on to speculate why, I should explain what iambic and trochee are.

You know how when you say a word, some parts of it are louder than others? Like the word “vehicle”–the “ve-” is a hair more emphasized than “-hicle.” Try saying “veHIcle,” or “vehiCLE.” It won’t sound right.

Each of these word parts is called a “syllable.” The correct pronunciation of a word means that you have to pronounce each word with the right amount of volume. The technical term for a loud syllable is “stressed.” A quieter syllable is “unstressed.”

Iambic is a type of syllable stressing pattern. It’s one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one. Weirdly, each unstressed-stressed combo is called a “foot.” Here’s an example from Shakespeare:

“but SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS.”

This is much more interesting than writing in iambic’s opposite, trochee, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Here’s some trochee:

“JACK and JILL went UP the HILL”

This is the kind of thing that gets accused of being “sing-song.” How unfair to trochee, relegated to the stuff of nursery rhymes, while iambic is immortalized by the Bard. They seem so similar, but they sound so different. Why?

And here’s my bullshit speculation. Stress patterns convey an enormous of information, including the pronunciation of the word, the speaker’s emotional state, and telegraphing natural breaks in the information being conveyed to the listener. With trochee, the strong first syllable always coincides with the introduction of a new thought. This is great for, shall we say, less sophisticated consumers of language, but too obvious and therefore boring to those with a little more taste.

Writing in iambic, whenever Shakespeare starts a sentence, the very first syllable is unstressed, even though we know that syllable marks the beginning of a new sentence, a new thought. This contrast sets up a pleasant dissonance between the stress pattern and the semantic pattern. A lifetime of conversation has set you up to expect some respect for the beginning of a sentence, and here comes iambic to trash that expectation.

The same goes for backbeats. You could put on a song with a backbeat starting halfway through, and listeners would be able to tell whether the hits are on the 2 and 4 instead of the 1 and 3. It’s the same principle at work. The melody line clues you in as to where the beginning of each musical phrase is, i.e. where the 1 is, and the backbeat plays against your expectation that the 1 is the beginning of each phrase and therefore important, by hitting the 2 and 4.

Anyway, this is just one little thought on how deeply music and language are intertwined. And a small example of how art works in general–first the setting up of a formal expectation, and then the playful dashing of it.

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