Sense of Rhythm, Subdivisions, Metronome Abuse

This article builds on "Heartbeat, Pulse, Rhythm," which can be found on UG. "Groove," "pocket" and other, similar, somewhat vague terms will not be discussed herein.


Rhythm is so difficult to learn...

If one listens to the general impression which seems to have become established among hobbyists as well as among some professional musicians, one would have to believe that any kind of rhythmic competence is a kind of mystical and supernatural talent, which if not magically innate, can only be obtained by either membership in one of those nationalities, "where the rhythm is in blood," or by some supernatural appropriation (which, fortunately, can be found in heaps at the local bookstore of your choice).

I'll be quite cheeky here and simply suggest that lack of an adequate theoretical description of rhythm has simply led to an underdevelopment in the educational field of rhythm - it is rather difficult to show something if nothing concretely abstracted is there to be shown (apart from mystic fire in the blood of course). In reaction to these circumstances I would like to some suggestions and approaches to hone one's own rhythmic skills.

... But playing long notes isn't

For this I will use my (here briefly repeated) concept of rhythm as a pulse arrangement, where a rhythm is the more "fluently" perceived, the more it resembles a human heartbeat.

Furthermore, we need a more precise definition of what is to be achieved here. What is rhythmic execution and a general "feel" of rhythm all about? Oversimplified, it comes down to approximately correct execution of pulses that appear in typically mathematical relations against a predetermined pulse (= speed).

The chief aim (among others!) therefore must be to create an accurate, repeatable bodily experience of pulses of equal length and especially accompanying relative pulses (= subdivisions)- and then repeat it again and again. For the sake of simplicity, I will limit the discussion here to the simple ratios of 1:1, 1:2, 1:3 and 1:4, for which I will propose approaches for practicing with which the body (as a kind of basic competence) can be accustomed to these pulse ratios. To achieve this, we will call the oldest friendly foe of the musician on the scene - the well-beloved metronome.

However, we will reverse its typical function here a little - instead of playing "against" the metronome, by first playing one pulse/one click, then two pulses / one click, etc., we'll let the metronome do the work by leting it "play" several clicks against a long-held pulse played by us. By listening this way to and empathizing with the metronome, which (almost as a byproduct), when repeated several times, will create a solid basis for further rhythmic work by establishing an optimal rhythmic imprint in the body - suffice it to say, playing 2/3/4/x pulses against one click by the metronome will have to be done also to provide a solid understanding from 'both sides of the story'.


In summary, with this article I have presented here a new way of working on the development of rhythmic skills, which is based on the following principles:
  • 1. Rhythmic expertise revolves around precise perception and execution of pulses and pulse ratios.
  • 2. Pulse relations must first be optimally internalized before they can be memorized and executed.
  • 3. A metronome 'knows' optimal pulse relations and can execute them - through playing with and listening to the metronome, a solid rhythmic base can be established.
This approach is especially useful for learning and getting used to odd meters for which almost no frames of reference exist, but it can also benefit musicians in rhythmically challenging areas. At this point, it however has to be said that knowledge of pulse ratios alone will unfortunately not constitute a full package of rhythmic competence - such a thing must, depending on on the scale of the ambitions, still be polished and honed over the years.

About the Author:
David Sertl is a composer and guitarist based in Vienna, Austria. For more information you can visit his website.

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    Interesting approach to improve the rhythmic skills. This can also be used to familiarize with polymeters and polyrhythm (4:3 etc)
    Great information. But for me it would work out better if you did a video on this topic because I am more of a visual and auditory learner.