• My image.


    What is prosody?

    Prosody studies the music of language.

    Prosody studies sounds moving through time.

    Prosody is separate from semantics. It’s distinct from the meaning of the words that the sounds compose.

    Prosody isn’t the sound of language organized in lines, as is now sometimes supposed. The reason this definitional fallacy is important to note is that it ignores any and all literature not written down, which is equivalent to ignoring songs that are only ever sung but not written down.

    Prosody studies the music of language, whether spoken or written. 

    Prosody is the science of sounds moving through time.


    The word prosody comes from the Greek prosōidía: a song sung to music.

    Prosody is the rhythm of words which when organized and structured in a universal way become grammar. But prosody isn’t grammar. Nor is it meaning.

    You could say that prosody studies the science of the music of language, the music underpinning the lyrics, and the music in between the lyrics, and underneath them: the melody line of the entire song and the harmonics and all the individual notes and stresses, as well as dynamics and rests.

    The science of prosody is a science that analyzes the sound of language — not the specific meaning of the language — as the sounds move through time.

    Hermann von Helmholtz defined music as “a sonorous body produced by periodic vibrations.” This definition of music isn’t quite commensurate with that which prosody studies, but it comes close.

    Semantics is the science that analyzes the meaning of words.

    Grammar is the science that analyzes the meaning of words integrated together. Syntax is a species of the genus grammar — syntax is part of grammar, but not the other way around.

    Prosody is the beat and song and pattern of language as sounds: it’s the study of the music of the sounds before the lyrics and their meaning are defined, grasped, interpreted.


    The word prosody is not definitionally related to the word prose, as one might plausibly think based upon the first four letters of each word — as I myself thought when I was first learning the words. Etymologically, they’re only distantly related.

    Prose — from the Latin prosa, proversus: “turned to face forward” — means “straightforward.”

    Prose is pronounced: PRO’S.

    Prosody is pronounced: PRAHS-uh-dee.

    The accent, as my pathetic all-caps are intended to denote, falls on the first syllable — a fact I mention because the word prosody itself can be used as a good but brief (mercifully brief, I do assure you) illustration of what prosody studies:

    In prosodic terms, the word prosody is known as a dactyl: three syllables in which the accent falls upon the first syllable.

    The word mercifully is also a dactyl.

    A troche, by contrast, is a two syllable word with the accent on the first syllable — as in: eager or beaver or dickhead.

    If, however, you meet someone named Richard Head who goes by Dick Head (from a long line of Dick Heads), the accent in this pronunciation typically falls on the second syllable — i.e. dick HEAD — in which case the phrase isn’t trochaic but iambic, which is the most common (though far from the only) way we stress phrases and words in English.

    Lines of verse can contain a dactylic meter (or trochaic — or any number of other obscure-sounding prosodic terms, which, I promise you, is not the point of this post, but just the opposite), such as the following lines from Thomas Hoods’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs”:

    Take her up tenderly,
    Fashioned so slenderly.

    Each of those two lines contain two dactyls per line, though as you no doubted noticed each line has only one word which in itself is a dactyl: tenderly and slenderly. The other words in each line — Take her up and Fashioned so — are dactyls (or dactylic phrases) because of how the three syllables are accented. In prosodic terms, this type of dactylic verse is called dactylic dimeter.

    That’s the only technical aspect of prosody I’ll address in this post, and I address it purely by way of clarification in brief example of prosody-in-practice, and by noting that the science of prosody would identify the word prosody itself as a dactyl.

    I’m well-aware that the science of prosody isn’t interesting to most people, and I totally understand that and respect it. As I mentioned four paragraphs above, my point here is focused upon something different — something which I regard as opposite prosody.



    The word prosody has two precise synonyms: metrics and versification.

    Prosody, metrics, and versification can be used interchangeably.

    All three words refer to the structuring and restructuring of sound, which distinguish and define the type of poetry we now call verse.

    Not all poetry and not all poetic language, however, is verse.

    Any given person may at any given time write or speak a phrase or passage that’s poetic. But this doesn’t make it verse. Neither does it make it a poem.

    Prosody — like metrics and versification — refer to the type of poetic language we now call verse.

    A verse is also known as a poem. But those two words are not quite synonymous. Almost but not quite.

    In the singular, “a verse” can refer to a single line of a poem or passage — i.e. when one says, for instance: “The verse from Act 3, scene 2 of Macbeth.”

    A verse can also mean a whole poem or a long passage or a section of a chapter in the bible, the koran, the Book of Mormon and any other religious text. That’s not a religious statement but a lexical fact.

    Like it or not, the word “verse” legitimately refers to a passage or section or entire chapter of the bible, as it also legitimately refers to passages, sections, or entire chapters of all the other religious books in the word. This is what the word “verse” has over the course of centuries come to mean.

    I’m interested in literature and the written word. This does not make me a religious person — any more than it makes me a Republican, Democrat, or any other such dogmatic nonsense which has no actual bearing on the art and study of literature, no matter how many dogmatists strive to make it so, to imagine and wish their dogmatic suppositions into existence.

    The bible, old and new testament alike — and you may quote me wildly on the following — contains more verse than any other book yet compiled. This includes Shakespeare. In fact, the Koran and the Book of Mormon contain more verse than Shakespeare.

    I use the word verse here in its broadest and most fundamental sense:

    Verse is metered language.

    Verse is language, whether written or spoken, in which some quality of the syllables, such as stress or quantity, is either strictly or at least relatively regularized.

    This regularization can be consciously done or unconsciously done — it doesn’t in this context matter.

    The determinate pattern is called the meter.

    The resulting kind of poetry is verse.

    Not just the bible but much — though not all — of the world’s poetry is verse: the Illiad and the Odyssey are verse. All the tragedies of the Ancient Greeks are verse. Dante’s Divine Comedy is verse. The unparalleled poetry of Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Algernon Charles Swineburne, Lord Byron, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, William Butler Yeats (et alia) — it’s all verse.

    Yet — and this is important — some of the world’s greatest poetry lacks meter: the King James version of the entire book of Psalms is one example.

    This, then, provides us with a salient point:

    All free verse is unmetered.



    Verse, I say again for emphasis, is metered language.

    The following is poetry but strictly speaking isn’t verse:

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
    He leadeth me beside the still waters.
    He restoreth my soul:

    He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
    for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
    Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
    And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

    — Psalm 23, King James Bible


    The following is poetry in the form of verse:

    Come live with me and be my love,
    And we will all the pleasures prove,
    That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
    Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

    And we will sit upon the rocks,
    Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
    By shallow rivers, to whose falls
    Melodious birds sing madrigals.

    — Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love


    The following is verse — i.e. metered language — but I don’t think too many people would call it poetry. You could describe it as prose imposed upon by a sort of arithmetic:

    The meter makes the verse, but not, of course,
    The poem, which demands much more than mere
    Arithmetic. This distinction is not
    An unimportant one, since verse sometimes
    Is thought sufficient or essential because of form.
    — Anonymous



    Prosodically, all poetry can be divided into two and only two fundamental types:

    Metered poetry, which is verse, and unmetered poetry, which is what we now call free verse.

    Whether or not poetry is metered — which is to say, metrical — has no bearing on its ultimate merit.

    Ultimate, I repeat.

    Walter Whitman, for example (who along with Emily Dickinson are in my opinion the two most overrated American poets of all time), writes far better free verse — or, as Whitman himself described it, vers libre — than he does strict verse.


    Poetry and prose — like music — are primarily temporal arts.

    This means, I say once again, that they’re art-forms much concerned with sound moving through time.

    (Temporal arts are distinguished from what’s still sometimes known as plastic arts, such as sculpture and painting.)

    Yet unlike music — music without lyrics, I mean — poetry and prose require an additional component: the component of intelligibility — the intelligibility of the words and their grammar, which unite with the sound and song of the words when integrated.

    This is why throughout history philosophers of art have often described literature as the most “cerebral” or “intellectual” of all the art-forms.

    This may or may not be true. It is in any case the reason that poetry is properly classified as a subdivision of both music and literature.

    The exclusively musical aspect of poetry as a study is called prosody.



    I personally prefer the word prosody over its two counterparts — metrics and versification — and here’s why:

    Metrics is to my ear a little too clinical, too mathematical — as in the “metric system” — and it therefore doesn’t, in my opinion, fully encompass the scope of the science.

    The term versification — much like the term mixology — carries the heavy baggage of the mechanically contrived: the connotation of the mechanically contrived combined with the extrinsic.

    The beautiful word prosody, upon the other hand, touches — oh-so-gently yet unmistakably — upon the sounds of poetry, its interiority and ancient connection with music and the singing voice and the human hum and even the human whistle. Prosody is the only word of the three which in my opinion captures Orpheus playing his lyre and Eurydice singing.

    But that’s purely personal preference.

    I’ve speculated, though, this is the basic reason that all attempts, over all the centuries, to supplant in prosody the beautiful Greek vocabulary with an English or Latin vocabulary have failed.

    Why, specifically?

    Because the language of prosody as we know it all across the word today is entirely Greek. The Greek has persisted — for its beauty and exactitude, and has for us all, no matter where on planet earth we live or what native language or languages we speak, a familiarity, which I think of (with a kind of reverence) as a familiar strangeness: strangeness and beauty.

    In addition to which, there’s always, in all eras and cultures, the risk of inventing terms that are no clearer — and often far less clear — and no more convenient than the Ancient Greek terms. For instance:

    The term “duple rising rhythm” may feel more English than the term “iambic,” but it goes to six syllables instead of three, on top of which it’s forced and ineluctably phony, pretentious-sounding — in a word, unnecessary.

    This is why I prefer the term prosody, and why I love the term prosody.

    Here, however, is the primary point of this post — the vitally important point:

    To study prosody is to study things such as tempo and sound, metric and beat, pause and flow, line and stanza, rhyme and rhymelessness, syllable and stress. To the prosodist, these things are every bit as important as metaphor, imagery, symbolism, connotation. The prosodist is in literature what the musicologist is in music. But the study of prosody is not — nor ever has been, nor ever will be — essential or remotely necessary to enjoying poetry and poems, or to loving the sound and meaning of words and sentences and literature.

    Just as every single one of us who’s not a musician or a musicologist appreciates music — all of us billions on planet earth who cannot imagine life without music and the songs we love and the songs we will come to love, even without knowing the first thing about keys and harmonics and notes and all the rest — so, too, with poems and poetry.

    Children love and understand the quite complex poems of childhood, as they also understand the well-written, intelligible poems of adulthood. As they also love and understand the songs that move them in an emotional way.

    Adult readers respond profoundly to poems by Goethe or Keats or Oscar Wilde or Edna Saint Vincent Millay or Elizabeth Bishop or millions of others, yet without knowing the mechanics or terminology of the metric.

    It doesn’t matter.

    Poetry and poems, like music, are meant to be enjoyed. They enrich our lives — all of our lives — and the technical underpinnings are neither requisite nor requirement nor criteria of loving literature or music.

    Prosody is there strictly for those who wish to go deeper into the poem.

    Prosody is there for those who wish to study the interworkings, the profounder mechanics. It’s for those who wish to X-Ray the poem and give it a comprehensive physical, a clean bill of health.

    But that desire — the wish to go deeper behind the scenes and to investigate the components that make up the groundwork of the poetry or poem or verse — isn’t requisite. Far from it, in fact.

    Also, we should never forget this overwhelming fact:

    The meaning of the words that compose any literature is always hierarchically more elemental than the prosody. In literature, the song is important too, but intelligibility and meaning are the fundamental things, though they do all work together in a symbiotic, reciprocal, harmonious way.

    Poetry more than any other single thing has shaped my life and made me the person I am. Prosody happens to be a passion of mine. But it’s not necessary in loving or appreciating or even writing literature.

    Poetry is not prosody — though, scaffold-like, poetry is undergirded by prosody.

    Poetry is the car you love to drive and experience — to cruise down the road with the windows down and, if you choose, put the peddle to the metal. Prosody, on the other hand, is what’s underneath the hood. You needn’t tinker with it at all — unless you want to. And if you want to, it’s there. But only if you want to. Only if you choose.

    Never let the prosodists or the musicologists or, for that matter, the mixologist or any of the other gists, in any discipline, bully you in your tastes with their academic-sounding language.

    Enjoy poetry, poems, and all other literature that you enjoy for the reasons you enjoy such literature: the meaning and the songs from which you derive pleasure, just as you enjoy the music and the cocktails that bring you pleasure, totally apart from musicology and cocktology.*

    Enjoy the literature that brings you contemplation and personal joy, which enriches your life, which is the point and purpose of it all.

    *The word “cocktology,” which I invented, is in prosody known as a choriamb: a trochee followed by an iamb. So is the word “mixology.” I know no bartender worth her of his salt who loves or even likes the words “mixology” or “mixologist.”

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

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