Mixing Science and Art: Rap Bars and Counting Syllables

A new friend in the spoken word scene was explaining his writing technique for rap turned spoken word. It blew my mind and opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for my own poetry writing.

For me, rhythm and rhyme always happened by accident; I just let the words flow and their tendency was to fall into patterns

Except when they started to refuse, and I panicked and wondered if I would ever finish another piece or be able to modify unfinished pieces.

Enter rap bars and syllable counting.

The concept of a rap formula had never occurred to me for spoken word. When I googled “how to write rap,” the internet revealed to me the science of flow, which I had been treating as solely an art to be absorbed from the ether.

A Little “How To”

Rapping is like singing, but you use your voice as a percussive instrument, creating rhythm and flow.

Most rap is written in common time, or 4/4 time. This just means there are four beats per bar. If you’re not musically trained just listened to a rap or instrumental track and try and count 1…2…3…4…
Look for the downbeat that begins each bar.

To start out you want to fit your lines into these four beats. Two sets of four beats gives you two lines and you can round it out with a punch line right there or expand your phrase to fill up four lines.

There is no set number of syllables per bar. More syllables and you’ll be spittin’ fast. Fewer and your rap will be laid back and way easier to master.

You can alternate between slow and fast in your rap. It’s common to jump into double time in the middle of your rap. Just write double the number of syllables into the same line.

Remember to write in a beat to catch your breath or you’ll fall behind!

Helpful tips:

  • Write to a beat
  • Count your syllables
  • Make the number consistent in each line
  • Build a pattern of line by line and internal rhyme
  • Use stressed and unstressed syllables to build a rhythm
  • Grunt a little, it feels good
  • Build in space to breathe
  • Eureka, we are back in business!

    So now I’m intentionally writing my spoken word poetry in rap style. I’m hoping to have a new piece to try out at the Urban Legends slam this Friday!

    Here is a sample I was working on today. The slashes mark the beats for each line.

    My/ tongue/ is/ firm/ly/ root/ed/ in/ my/ cheek

    Ex/cept/ when/ it’s/ all/tang/led/ up/ with/ yours

    Of/ course/ you/ don’t/ mind/ now/_ /do/ you/, sweet?

    All/ my/ best/ lines/ be/tween/ my /chest/ and/ yours?

    When it/comes/to/ hold/ing/back,/ I/ ne/ver/ rest

    Pro/tect/ing/scars/and/stripes/ and/ what/ they/ mask

    My /truth/and/ tales/ in/terred/ in/ earn/est/ jest

    Keep/ing/ dis/tance/ be/tween/ our/ dis/tant/ pasts

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    2 thoughts on “Mixing Science and Art: Rap Bars and Counting Syllables

    1. Great insight.
      I also do the same thing and I have been doing it for a while now.I always write most of my poems (but not all) to a beat, even if I do not intend to perform to one. It gives my bars a rhythm, a heartbeat if you will. You practically stole your words from mind lol. I do not normally count the syllables though, it messes with my chi and it kills my vibe. I rely on the beat to provide the cue. Now if I could just sort out the delivery then… :-)

      • I agree, the syllable counting was messing with my flow, too. What works for me now is to free write a first draft to a beat and then I can go back and rework it. All the science stuff about phrase lengths can come into play for draft 2.

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