Rhyme and Rhythm: Overview

"Rhyme and rhythm" may be the easiest way to remember things. But did you know that the **rhythm** can be even more important than the **rhyme**?

Rhyme and rhythm are amazing. A simple rhyme can condense lots of information. You probably already know and use a few mnemonic rhymes.

For instance, which months have 30 days? Here’s an old mnemonic rhyme you may already know.

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.

Consider a chart of the same data:

MonthDays
Jan31
Feb28/29
March31
April30
May31
Jun30
Jul31
Aug31
Sep30
Oct31
Nov30
Dec31

Which would you rather memorize?

Computers love charts. Brains ignore them.

History rhymes

In the late 19th and early 20th century, mnemonic rhymes were quite popular. Especially (as far as I can tell) for memorizing history. In the last few years, many of these old books have been digitized and put online. You can find poems covering the whole history of England or America (at least, up to the late 19th century). Even the years are worked in.

The great Julius Caesar, B.C. fifty-five,
Having conquered the Gauls, came with Britons to strive.
He returned the next year with more soldiers from Rome,
But they fought him so well, he made peace and went home.
No further attempt at invasion we see,
Till the Emperor Claudius, A.D. forty-three.1

Although they sometimes smell a bit of 19th century tastes and prejudices (which can make for inaccurate history), you might still find these useful. Remember, you should cross-check these facts against your other studies. Mnemonics remind you of what you’re learning elsewhere. They’re no substitute for solid studies.

Rhythm Alone: Recitative Style

Rhyme is great, but the rhythm can actually be more important. You can break up a text into short pieces that rhythmically play against each other. In The Oral Style, French priest Marcel Jousse found such rhythms in the Gospel of St. Mark. We’re used to thinking of a text like the Bible as solid blocks of text. The Bible is even broken up into verses and numbered. But underneath all this, it has rhythm.

Compare these two renderings of Mark 2:16

Standard block of text

And the scribes and the Pharisees, seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners, said to his disciples, “Why does your master eat and drink with publicans and sinners?”

Oral rhythms

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
    seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,
said to his disciples,
    “Why does your master eat and drink
       with publicans and sinners?”

The “recitative” version is far more memorable.

Instead of a solid blob, you can see the main parts of this verse, and how they fit together. The indentation shows the back and forth rhythm. The first two lines are a pair, the next three are a trio.

Say them out loud, and you’ll hear the rhythm. Each first thought creates an expectation which is satisfied by the second thought. “Why does your master eat and drink…” Now what? “…with tax collectors and sinners.”

The rhythm is in the meaning of the phrases. You can’t just break up any old text (such as the phone book) and get rhythm. But in the Bible, you can find these pairs and trios.

You can also highlight key words, and emphasize them when you recite the text. One key phrase here might be publicans and sinners, since it’s unique and repeated here.

You can find underlying rhythms in many texts

The Bible was composed at a time when people were used to speaking and listening for rhythm. So it’s pretty easy to find those rhythms, once you start looking. But you can sometimes find some rhythm even in modern definitions.

Standard block

The Holy Spirit proceeds eternally and without beginning from the Father and equally from the Son, as from one principle, not through two, through a process called inspiration.

Oral rhythms

The Holy Spirit proceeds
    eternally and without beginning
from the Father
    and equally from the Son,
as from one principle,
    not through two,
through a process called
    inspiration

It would take a long time to try to make that definition rhyme. But finding a rhythm, even a weak rhythm, is quite fast, and can make the meaning and flow much more clear. Try to find rhythms in your definitions, and rewrite them in this style. You may be surprised at how much easier they are to understand — and remember.


  1. From The History of England in Rhyme, by Robert C. Adams, 1880. 

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