In this lesson we will look at how to set words to a rhythm.

This question sometimes comes up in the Trinity Grade 4 Music Theory Exam.

Stressed Syllables

The first step is to work out which syllables of the words are stressed.

The easiest way to do this is to read through the words quite slowly (in your head) and tap your foot at the same time. Do this several times, and your foot will normally “tune in” to the stressed syllables. Try with these words (by William Blake):

Tiger, tiger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night.

As you say the words, tap your foot roughly once per second. Take your pencil and underline the syllables which coincide with your foot taps (not necessarily the whole word).

Tiger, tiger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night.

These syllables will fall on the strong beats of your rhythm. (The strong beats are the first beat of each bar, and the third beat if the rhythm is in quadruple time.)

Time Signature & Bar Lines

Any words can be made to fit any time signature.

I’ll choose 3/4 for these words.

Put a bar line immediately before each stressed syllable:

Tiger, |tiger, |burning |bright,

|In the |forests |of the |night.||

Don’t forget you will need a double bar line at the end. No bar line is needed before the very first note.

Note Values

Next, pencil in the note values you want to use for each syllable. The word “tiger” has two syllables, for example, so you’ll need to write two note values for that word.

It’s a good idea to re-use part of the rhythm you put for the first line, in the second line. This will give your melody some consistency – the two lines of poetry will be connected rhythmically to each other.

The last note of your rhythm should be long (at least a crotchet (quarter note)) and should fall on the beat. It’s fine to use one long note in the last bar. Here is one way to do it:

setting words to a rhythm example

Here, we have re-used the rhythms from bars 2 and 4 in bars 6 and 8. 

The rest in bar 5 not only varies the rhythm, it also allows the singer to catch their breath!

The long tied note in bar 7 forms a kind of climax, just before the end of the melody.

Writing out the Words

Words that have two or more syllables have to be split up and reconnected with a hyphen, when you write the words underneath the notes.

Look again at the above example – the word “Tiger” has two syllables, so each syllable is written underneath a note, and the hyphen is used to connect the two syllables:


Setting Words Exercises

Write a rhythm on one note, with time signature and barlines, to fit these words. Write each syllable under the note or notes to which it applies.


Sleep, peace, dreaming of you

Hoping that one day the dreams will come true





Curled up cat, dozy dog,

Inside warmth and outside fog





The man stood waiting with a frown

While bodies busied all around





The crashing sea, the thrashing waves

The salty, endless sea-ward days






So small, and yet so powerful.

The humble bee makes our world full