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Another way to ask the question would be: Does an arrangement built for a vocal melody adhere in some way to the rhythm of the vocal or are they independent rhythmically speaking? I have a melody and the chords and now I want to build an arrangement off of this vocal part but I am kind of stuck. Should the main bass notes (excluding bass runs) sync up with the vocal? Should the guitar strum sync up with the vocal? Or is it safe to say that if the arrangement of the instruments (drums, guitars and bass) is tight then the vocal can do just about anything rhythmically speaking.

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    I don't think this can be definitively answered. If you listen to music written by others, you'll find that sometimes the answers to your questions are yes and sometimes it's no. Depending on the song, the parts, the style, the feeling, you might want things to sync up or it might be more important for them to clash or complement or anything like that. Basically, no one else can tell you how to write/compose, you have to figure that out. That's what writing/composing is: figuring out how you want to answer all these questions.. – Todd Wilcox Jun 18 at 17:11
  • It can definitely be answered - even if the answer is 'no' that's still an answer. Don't be too hasty. – Tetsujin Jun 18 at 18:17
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No. It doesn't have to.
If you want, it can; but if you don't want, it doesn't need to.

I think the best thing you can say is that the good ones add up to a significant whole - something greater than the sum of the parts.

Imagine a reggae version of Happy Birthday - you know the tune so well that no matter what is done to the arrangement rhythmically, it's not going to throw you.

Then take some extremes the other way - songs that started life with 'opposing' if not unpleasant rhythmic juxtapositions.

What about Police - Roxanne? Would it have been the same if Sting had not chosen to make his own life simpler by 'not singing whilst he was playing'?

Or how about something more modern... Kings of Leon - Charmer
The snare is on the one. Everything else depends on you grasping that. Cymbal on the 4 will throw you every time. Bassline is the only easy thing to hang onto until the vocal comes in... [& even the vocal emphasises the four rather than the one]
KoL are very much the 'rock band to watch' if you want to hear how to throw the audience rhythmically, whilst actually not quite being 'completely mad'. They really do have a whole lot of 'interesting' going on.

Or, to go back to bassists who sing - how about Thin Lizzy - Boys are Back in Town
Whilst maintaining a simple repetitive swing 'chug' on the bass ... duum-bi-dumm-bi-dumm right the way through, Phil Lynott throws the rhythmic structure of the melody everywhere without ever losing the plot. If this was rap, he'd have been 30 years ahead of his time, rhythmically. Wait for the last verse to see just how far you can throw the vocal without once it feeling anything less than totally accomplished.
"The juke box in the corner, blasting out my favourite song..."
Sheer genius.

Back to 'reggae versions of things you know well' - this from a collaborative effort...
Easy Star All-Stars - Dub Side of the Moon.
Yes, it's Pink Floyd. Yes, it's reggae.
Unimaginable, but by heck they do it without it hurting even the sensibilities of the true Floyd fan. The better you know the original Floyd, the more impressive this is as a cover. From old-style dub to relatively contemporary drum & bass - a wonder to behold... & please do. Give it the time it deserves; curl up on the sofa with the soporific of your choice & chill to ...

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    Great answer! Not to mention Arctic Monkeys. Take "Do I Wanna Know" for example: youtube.com/watch?v=bpOSxM0rNPM . After 6 years I still can't play and sing at the same time.... – coconochao Jun 18 at 18:50
  • Or anything by Ed Sheeran, who trys squashing as many vocal syllables in as he can, regardless of the music. – marcellothearcane Jun 19 at 5:12
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It's pretty well unanswerable. I've done similar to this many times. take the tune frere jacques (or any other simple melody). Change the timing of the notes, or put it into a different time sig, or both, and it's a different song. Often unrecogisable as the original.

There are some tenets that work with the lyrics. All lyrics will have their own individual rhythmic pattern. It is, after all, how many songs obtain the rhythmic part of the arrangement. So that part is sort of 'written in stone' for a certain set of words.

Having said all that, any song can be 'jazzed up'. My dad would often say 'he's ruining that song' when the rhythm of the words was changed by someone doing a cover version. As a jazz player, I suppose I've 'ruined' many a song by changing the rhythmic pattern of the original song!

Anything and everything can (and will!) be altered - sometimes to the detriment - in an existing song. If the rhythm section plays as is, and the vocal line has a lot of rubato added, it's then down to the listener to decide if it's an improvemnt or otherwise. And that's subjective...

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...rhythmic responsibility ...adhere in some way to the rhythm ...independent rhythmically ...sync up

Except for 'independent rhythmically' these terms are kind of vague.

Yes, the parts will adhere, sync up, etc. but what does that really mean? Even when one part is all down beats and another is syncopated the two parts are adhering and syncing to each other and the meter. Same goes for polyrhythms, the independent units sync up.

The wonky theory terms are homorhythmic/heterorhythmic for same versus independent rhythm.

In a pop arrangement I think the norm is heterorhythmic where some combination of parts creates a groove and the melody uses a contrasting rhythm. Sometimes parts will move with the exact same rhythm, but that is likely to be a break from the typical texture of mixed rhythms.

I Shot the Sheriff is a good example the main song has independent rhythms, but there is the instrumental break where the bass and piano play the same part, same rhythm, same melody. (But even in that break the hi-hat is playing a different rhythm.)

So a combination of similar and independent rhythms will be used, but typically the parts sync up and confirm a meter.

Real homophonic rhythm in pop music is faily unusual. But this is a good example: The Monks, Shut Up. But notice how even this song with a very stiff, homorhythmic feel, there are sections where some rhythmic contracts is added (the vocal verses, and keyboard solos.)

Truly independent rhythms that don't really sync up to confirm a meter will sound like this example: Unit Structures.

Does a vocal melody have any rhythmic responsibility to the underlying arrangement in pop music?

Yes, in the sense of the melody and rhythm section both have a "responsibility" to conform to the meter.

No, in the sense that pop music is almost never completely homorhythmic.

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'Pop' is a kind of umbrella term that, musically speaking, often refers to songs written in 'mainstream' versions of other genres such as reggae, house, rock, folk, etc etc. - and each of those genres has their own norms (and ways of breaking them).

Having said that - one of the features of most pop music is to have some kind of 'catchy' refrain or hook. Usually, the vocal will have some rhythmic lock-in with the underlying arrangement at least for that part. Tetsujin's example of Boys Are Back In Town illustrates this well - the verse is very freely sung, but "the bit that everyone remembers" is tighter to the rhythm.

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    The 'genius' is in the verse, but the 'pop' is in the chorus. Yup. It wasn't a point I'd originally considered, but yup, for sure. – Tetsujin Jun 18 at 17:50

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