Blues by Shakespeare

What do William Shakespeare and W.C. Handy have in common? They both utilize Iambic Pentameter – a specific metrical pattern that creates a musical rhythm in the text. Leonard Bernstein explained it like this:

Crazy, right?!

To understand Iambic Pentameter we need to understand the following term:

Foot (plural, feet) – A unit of measure in a metrical line, analogous to a measure in music, with syllables instead of notes. (definition from The Poetry Dictionary).

We notate stressed and unstressed syllables within a foot with different symbols (˘ Unstressed, / Stressed). For clarity, I also format stressed syllables in bold font. There are various types of feet: 

Iamb               ˘ /            [destroy ]
Anapest          ˘ ˘ /         [in – ter – vene
Trochee          / ˘            [top – sy]
Dactyl             / ˘ ˘         [mer – ri – ly
Spondee         / /            [hum – drum
Pyrrhic           ˘ ˘            [with the]

Traditional blues lyrics are written in Iambic Pentameter, which means there are 5 sets of Iamb’s per line. For example, please check out my Feet Analysis of Saint Louis Blues (first two blues choruses within the form) by W. C. Handy.

As I studied poetic meter I was fascinated by how many parallels exist between poetic and musical meter. At the macro level feet can be compared with time signatures and/or feels.

  • Dactyl (/ ˘ ˘) meter sounds very similar to a triple feel such as a waltz,  where the 1st beat of every measure is emphasized. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 etc… (Listen to My Favorite Things by John Coltrane)
  • Spondee (/) reminds me of the strong beats in the classic Art Blakey march feel, where each beat has the same emphasis. (Listen to Blues March at 0:18)
  • Trochee (/ ˘) sounds like the traditional 2/4 March feel (Listen to Stars and Stripes Forever by Arcadi Volodos)
  • Iamb (˘ /) is similar to the blues and jazz feel, where the emphasis within the measure is on 2 and 4.

At the micro level, various feet can be identified within a complex melody. In my next post I plan to demonstrate how a melody can be analyzed in terms of poetic feet and how attention to meter can aid lyricizing.

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