How to understand rhythm in poetry for KS3 English students - BBC Bitesize (2024)

Listen to your heartbeat or feel your pulse.

What rhythm does it create?

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Introduction to rhythm

Rhythm can be described as the beat and pace of a poem. The rhythmic beat is created by the pattern of and syllables in a line or verse. In modern poetry, line breaks, repetition and even spaces for silence can help to create rhythm.

Rhythm can help to strengthen the meaning of words and ideas in a poem.

Video about understanding rhythm

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When we speak in ordinary conversation, we pronounce different parts of words, or , separately. For example:

  • Table has two beats, or two syllables: ta-ble

  • Chair has only one syllable: chair

Some syllables seem to have a long or short sound when they are pronounced. Take the word, ‘table’. The first part of the word is emphasised when we say it. Ta-ble. The second part of the word sounds shorter.

We can call this different syllable emphasis stressed or unstressed. In the word ‘banana’, for example, the central syllable is longer, or stressed, when you say it naturally: ba-na-na. Try saying it out loud to hear where the natural emphasis falls.

Poets make use of these natural stresses in language in order to create in poetry. It can be helpful to think of rhythm in poetry as being like a beat in music.

In poetry, this pattern of the stressed and unstressed parts of words is called the metre, which is the number and type of rhythmic beats in a line of poetry.

In types of poems, such as haikus, the writer counts the number of syllables in each line. In metrical poetry, however, poets don’t count the number of syllables in each line; they count the number of ‘stresses’.

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Within poetry the beat is the pattern of stresses within a line of verse. In music, a drummer or bass guitarist might create the beat for the rest of the band to follow, or a conductor might signal the beat to an orchestra or choir, but in poetry the rhythm is usually set by the ‘stresses’ in the words themselves.

All spoken word has a rhythm formed by stressed and unstressed syllables. Poets deliberately create rhythmical patterns to create particular effects. Traditionally, a poet uses metre – a regular pattern of stresses - to create a rhythmic pattern.

In modern poetry, a poet might also use line breaks to create rhythm.

For example, in William Carlos Williams’ To a Poor Old Woman the woman is eating plums:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

The line breaks play with the rhythm. Here the breaks force the reader to shift their focus onto a different word on each line – even though it is the same sentence. Here it gives the effect of time slowing down as she’s enjoying the taste of the fruit.

Poets might even use a blank space in the line to create silence. For example, John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing begins:

I am here and there is nothing to say.

Just like in music, repeating lines or phrases as well as a refrain or chorus can also create rhythm in poetry.

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Stressed and unstressed

Different rhythmic patterns are created by choosing where the emphasis (stress) falls in the line. These patterns all have names:

  • An iamb: unstressed / stressed – da-DUM
  • A trochee: stressed / unstressed – DUM-da
  • A spondee: stressed / stressed – DUM-DUM
  • An anapaest: unstressed / unstressed / stressed – da-da-DUM
  • A dactyl: stressed / unstressed / unstressed – DUM-da-da

Poets arrange their words in such a way as to create those rhythmical patterns.

For example, the poet, Lord Byron in The Destruction of Sennacherib used an anapaestic rhythm to create the sound of horses riding into battle. The rolling rhythm makes the Assyrian army sound unstoppable, the bolded stressed syllables shows this:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Which rhythm is which?

Read the lines from these two poems aloud. Can you hear the rhythm as you say it? Which one is iambic and which is anapaestic?

a) A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

b) Remember by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;

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The metre in a line of poetry is identified through the stressed and unstressed pattern of words. Poetic rhythms are measured in .

A metrical foot usually has one stressed syllable and one or two unstressed syllables. Different poets use the pattern of the metre to create different effects.

The type of meter is determined by the number of feet in a line:

  • Dimeter: contains two metrical feet
  • Trimeter: contains three metrical feet
  • Tetrameter: contains four metrical feet
  • Pentameter: contains five metrical feet
  • Hexameter: contains six metrical feet

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Iambic pentameter

One of the most frequently used patterns of metre is iambic pentameter and it is very common in William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. An iamb is a metrical foot that is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: da-DUM.

‘Penta’ means five. So a line of iambic pentameter contains five iambs, or five sections of da-DUM. So each line is da-DUM- da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

For example, in Sonnet 104, Shakespeare begins:

To me fair friend you never can be old,

There are five sections to the line, and five stresses, following that da-DUM pattern, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

To me fair friend you never can be old,

Iambic pentameter can be roughly summarised as having 10 syllables a line. This is not always true due to the stressed and unstressed syllables but a quick guide is to count the syllables in each line. If each one has 10 or 11 then it is likely to be iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter is thought to be the sound of natural conversation and so poets will often use it to create a conversational or natural feel to the poem.

How to understand rhythm in poetry for KS3 English students - BBC Bitesize (1)

Which of these demonstrates a line of iambic pentameter?

a) da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
b) da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM

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Trochaic tetrameter

Although iambs, the da-DUM pattern, are common in poetry, there are other rhythms too. When the stresses fall at the beginning of the metrical foot, making a DUM-da pattern, we call these feet trochees.

The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth occasionally speak in a pattern of trochaic tetrameter.

Double, double toil, and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

This emphasis sounds unnatural in comparison to the more conversational iambic rhythm of the other characters in the play. Perhaps Shakespeare is emphasising the other-worldliness of the witches by having them speak this way. Other supernatural creatures in Shakespeare's plays, such as the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream also have lines which use a form of trochaic tetrameter.

Read the lines from these two Shakespeare plays aloud. Can you hear the rhythm as you say it? Which one is iambic and which is trochaic?

If music be the food of love, play on.
(Twelfth Night)

If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

How to understand rhythm in poetry for KS3 English students - BBC Bitesize (2)

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Effect of rhythm

Different rhythms can have different effects on a reader. A poet will use rhythm to generate a mood or tone, which may copy or echo what the poem is about.

In The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the rhythm sounds like galloping hooves adding to the dramatic re-telling of the famous charge on horseback into the enemy’s guns :

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.


A poet is often trying to say a lot in just a few words, and so understanding rhythm will help with your understanding of the whole poem.

Just like in the music in a film, the beat or rhythm helps to build an expectation of the content.

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How to understand rhythm in poetry for KS3 English students - BBC Bitesize (3)

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How to understand rhythm in poetry for KS3 English students - BBC Bitesize (2024)


How to understand Rhythm in poetry? ›

The definition of rhythm in poetry is the use of stressed and unstressed syllables to create a beat, specifically in poetry in verse form. The beats in a poem determine the rhythm, which is identified by the ear and based on the poem's structure and tempo.

What is Rhythm in poetry the basics? ›

English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the traditional "/" and "x." Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.

What is the most common type of rhythmic pattern in English language poetry? ›

This type of metrical foot is called an iamb and there are five of them here. Since “penta” is the prefix for five, we call this metrical form “iambic pentameter,” the most common meter in English poetry.

Which best describes Rhythm in poetry? ›

Explanation: Rhythm in poetry refers to the way sounds are arranged and emphasized within a poem. It creates a musical quality in poetry and helps to create a specific tone or mood. The arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables, known as meter, is one way rhythm is created in poetry.

How do you read rhythm for beginners? ›

The top number of the time signature tells us how many beats there are in each bar. The bottom number tells us which type of note fills one beat. Simple, right? For example, in 4/4 time, the top number tells us there are 4 beats to the bar and the bottom tells us the quarter note gets one beat—1-2-3-4.

How do you explain rhythm? ›

Rhythm is music's pattern in time. Whatever other elements a given piece of music may have (e.g., patterns in pitch or timbre), rhythm is the one indispensable element of all music. Rhythm can exist without melody, as in the drumbeats of so-called primitive music, but melody cannot exist without rhythm.

What are the basic concepts of rhythm? ›

Rhythm is the arrangement of sound patterns in music. Rhythm consists of two basic parts: The beat is the pulse of the music and tempo is how fast that pulse is moving. Written music is organized into measures that contain a determined number of beats, generally 2 to 4 beats per measure.

What are the four types of rhythm? ›

What are the four types of rhythm? Four of the most common types of rhythm include regular rhythm, alternating rhythm, progressive rhythm, and flowing rhythm. Alternating rhythm, for example, uses two or more regular rhythms in an alternating, sequential pattern.

What are the basics of rhythm? ›

To understand rhythm are seven basic concepts or elements of rhythm to know:
  • Beats and notes.
  • Measures and time signatures.
  • Strong and Weak Beats.
  • Meter.
  • Syncopation.
  • Accents.
  • Tempo.
Aug 3, 2023

How do you identify the appropriate rhythm in a given poem? ›

Identifying rhythm in a poem is done by the meter of stressed and unstressed patterns and repetitions of line lengths, the number of syllables, and whether they are arranged in short/long, or stressed/unstressed. When reading a rhythmic pattern out loud, it should carry a metered beat, as in a lyrical context.

What are the poetic techniques of rhythm? ›

Rhythm in music and in words

Poets deliberately create rhythmical patterns to create particular effects. Traditionally, a poet uses metre – a regular pattern of stresses - to create a rhythmic pattern. In modern poetry, a poet might also use line breaks to create rhythm. The line breaks play with the rhythm.

What is the basic rhythmic structure of a poem? ›

Meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a line within a work of poetry.

What creates rhythm in a poem? ›

Rhythm in poetry can be thought of as the beat or the flow of a poem. It is made up of beat and repetition, so it usually refers to features of sound. It is created by stressed and unstressed syllables in a line or a verse.

What is another word for rhythm in poetry? ›

In other words, “meter” is just another word for “rhythm in poetry.” In these lessons, I will use the words “meter” and “rhythm” to mean basically the same thing.

How do you understand rhythm in writing? ›

Rhythm in writing is the way words and sentences are arranged to create a certain sound and pace. It can be impacted by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, use of vowel and consonant sounds, variations in sentence length, and punctuation choices.

How can I understand better rhythm? ›

7 Easy Ways to Improve Your Sense of Rhythm
  1. Dance. Close your eyes and listen to a song you love. ...
  2. Get Familiar with a Metronome. A metronome is your best friend if you're having trouble with rhythm. ...
  3. Train Your Senses. ...
  4. Play with a Pro. ...
  5. Beat Dividing. ...
  6. Listen to Yourself Play. ...
  7. Practice Regularly.
Feb 22, 2023

How do you teach rhythm? ›

Clapping and counting aloud is a simple and effective way to introduce rhythm values and their names. Start with basic rhythms, like quarter notes and eighth notes, and have students clap along while counting out the beats. Gradually introduce more complex rhythms and have students practice clapping and counting them.

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