Take a look at this verse from the classic Brahms lullaby. Read or sing it aloud. What is it about this song that lulls you or gives you a sense of peace?

Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight
With lilies o’er spread is baby’s wee bed
Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed
Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed

The lullaby is full of soothing sounds, like s’s and long i‘s and the round hug of the ow in down now, and also has some reassuring repetition. No doubt the song is sung in a low, murmuring voice.

Now take a look at this nursery rhyme. Read it aloud. What is it about this rhyme that energizes you and makes you read faster?

Hipperty, clickerty, clackerty, bang.
Get in a corner as fast as you can!
The sideboard is tipsy, the table is mad,
the chairs have lost all the sense that they had.
So hipperty, clickerty, clackerty, bang.
Get in a corner as fast as you can!

Compared to the lullaby, the rhyme is faster and cracks along. It’s full of hard consonants — like k, g, and d sounds — and short vowels, as in the words get, fast, can, mad. You may have even read it in a higher-pitched voice.

These two rhymes may be different, but they have something very important in common:

a consistent rhythm that evokes a desired response.

That’s what we want to do with our writing, too, which is why we begin the study of poetic elements with a look at the components of rhythm.

What Is Rhythm?

In poetry, rhythm is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line, and it’s what makes our writing sound musical whether in rhyme or in prose. This pattern of stresses is also the foundation of meter, which in turn is a foundation of poetry. Knowing how to identify stressed and unstressed syllables is the essential first step to understanding rhythm, meter, rhyme, and lyrical language.


How to Mark Stresses

Stressed syllables are marked with a slash (/) over the syllable, while unstressed syllables are marked with a small u over the syllable, as in this line from Shakespeare:


When typing, it is often more efficient to use ALL CAPS for stressed syllables and lowercase for unstressed syllables, as follows:


 I will be using both methods in the lessons.

Stressed and Unstressed Syllables in Single Words

When we speak, we naturally put more emphasis on one part of each multisyllable word. It’s not something we have to think about. To work successfully with meter and rhyme, however, we need to train our ears to notice this emphasis so we can consciously use stressed and unstressed syllables to create patterns in our writing.


Listen to the audio recording of the following words:


Could you discern the stressed syllables right away? How are the stressed syllables different from the unstressed syllables?

Stressed syllables are spoken louder and in a slightly higher pitch, last longer, and have full vowel sounds. By contrast, unstressed syllables are spoken more quietly in a lower pitch, are shorter, and have more muffled vowel sounds.


Listen to the audio again. This time, say the words along with the audio. Imagine that you have a big clumsy penguin on one side of you and a dainty birdie on the other. Thump the table like a clumsy penguin on each stressed syllable, as shown in all caps below. Tap the table like a dainty birdie on the unstressed syllables.




Primary and Secondary Stresses

You may have noticed that the words with three or more syllables have more than one stressed syllable. Listen to the following audio, which focuses on these words:

THING-a-ma-jig        pon-TIF-i-cate        gen-er-A-tion   

hul-la-ba-LOO            mac-a-DA-mi-a       qual-i-fic-A-tion

The italics represent the secondary stressed syllable contained in multisyllable words. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between the primary and secondary stresses so you can use secondary stresses in your meter (as you’ll see in audio 1.4 later on).

Now you try.

among              sweeter         carnival       alacrity        

possibility       hilarious       hyena           flibbertigibbet

Levels of Stress and Stressed Words

So far we’ve looked at stressed syllables in individual words and have seen that there are different levels of stress — primary and secondary. Another level we must consider, however, is how whole words are stressed in a sentence and how changing the stressed word also changes the meaning of the sentence. Read these sentences aloud, stressing the capitalized words.

Harriet played outside today.

HARRIET played outside today. (not Joan)
Harriet PLAYED outside today. (she didn’t work)

Harriet played OUTSIDE today. (not inside)
Harriet played outside TODAY. (not yesterday)

As you’ll see in the example poem later on, the same word might be stressed in one sentence but not in another. It all depends on the placement of the stressed syllable/word within the context of the whole.

Stressed and Unstressed Syllables in Phrases

When taken individually, single-syllable words contain one stressed syllable. But when we write, we have to look at how those single-syllable words work within the context of the whole phrase or sentence. Listen to the audio recording of the following lines from my poem “Elegy for a Daffodil.” Notice where the stresses fall – or don’t fall – on single-syllable words.


Points to Ponder


• Download and print the Lesson 1 Practice Sheet. Do as much or as little as you need.  

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For additional learning and application:


Want to check your work? Here's an answer sheet and audio!

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Tips and Tricks for Ear Training



Recommended Reading and Resources

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Glossary of Poetic Terms

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This lesson is part of the online writing course THE LYRICAL LANGUAGE LAB: Punching Up Prose with Poetry and is copyrighted intellectual property. No portion of this publication may be shared or reproduced by any means, including duplicating, photocopying, electronic, mechanical, email, recording, the World Wide Web, or otherwise.

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