It’s About Time

Music is built of three primary elements. We have melody: the horizontal or linear aspect; the part we whistle, sing, or hum; the tune. It is presented one pitch at a time. We have harmony: the vertical or simultaneous aspect; notes in combination; the accompaniment. It is presented by placing pitches together, whether in chords or in counterpoint. Finally, there is rhythm: how musical events happen in time. Rhythm concerns itself with pulses and durations – when things happen, and how long they last. When learning a new piece of music, we spend much of our time concerning ourselves with the two elements based on pitch, trying to always play the correct notes, stopping when we miss one, playing it again to “fix” it. Very often, we put rhythmic accuracy last, and concern ourselves with that only after we’re sure we’ve learned all the correct notes, almost as if it were optional.

This is a backwards way to work. Out of the three primary elements of music, rhythm is the most important. Tap the rhythm of a familiar tune (Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday, Mary Had a Little Lamb, etc.) out on your desk. Then hum the same tune with distorted rhythms. Which is more recognizable to you?  Keep in mind there is plenty of music with neither melody nor harmony, but there is no such thing as music without rhythm. Pitch is concerned with how the music sounds, and how it may be organized in ways that are intellectually satisfying, but rhythm has to do with how the music feels. The development of strong rhythmic skills should be at the forefront of every guitarist’s work.

Rhythm consists broadly of two components. There is pulse, which is organized into meter, and then there are rhythms expressed around that regularly-occurring pulse. The sensation of pulse is an interesting phenomenon that happens somewhere deep inside the physical body. We like the sensation of a regular beat. From a performer’s point of view, pulse may be seen as the framework or underlying structure over which the music is draped. Rhythmic devices that generate interest (silence, syncopation, fast divisions) are only meaningful when compared to a solid, unwavering pulse.

The second component has to do with how musical events are placed in relation to pulse. These are the specific rhythms, which are written down using a proportional system of meters and durations. We tend to think of a quarter note as a duration that receives one beat. This depends on the meter, or time signature. In actuality, meter and rhythms have to do with organizing beats into groups of two’s and three’s and dividing them into two’s and three’s. That’s all there is. A group of four sixteenth notes is really just two groups of two. Odd-numbered or asymmetrical meters and rhythms are the same. 5/8 is a group of two and a group of three eighth notes (or a group of three and a group of two), and a septuplet may be thought of as a group of three and two groups of two.

Try some of these exercises for strengthening your rhythmic skills. These can be done with a metronome, or while listening to music that feels good to you. (You might not want your neighbors to watch some of these.)

1) Shake an empty can filled with pebbles  (or anything else that will make a shaker-type sound) in time with the pulse. Experiment with how you can play “around” the pulse by using a slower or sharper motion. If you get off of the pulse, can you tell whether your tendency is to drag or rush?

2) Step in time with a pulse and clap rhythms against it. Use rhythms in a piece you are working on (or the piece you are listening to), or try clapping divisions of a pulse. Can you go smoothly from 2’s to 3’s or 3’s to 4’s?

3) Use the large muscles in your legs, arms and back to understand pulse with a deep physical knowing. Stretch your arms towards the ceiling on one beat, then on the next beat swing them behind you, bending over at the waist and bending your knees, then swing back up again. If the pulse is too fast, swing on every two beats.

4) Upbeats and cross-rhythms are very good for developing a fine sense of pulse awareness. Set the metronome to 60 and try clapping exactly halfway between each pulse. Increase the metronome speed until you can’t do this accurately anymore. For cross rhythms, set the metronome to 120 and try clapping on every other click. Switch to every third click, and try to go back and forth between the two. (“I want to Live in um-Eh-Ri-Ca” from West Side Story)

As you work on a new piece of music, strive to understand rhythm first, then play the pitches in the rhythms you have learned accurately.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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