Rhythm / (?)
Objective. Examine the idea of a time signature and the common musical notation symbols we use to write down the rhythms that motor our musical ideas. Look at time signatures from a perspective of musical styles. And begin a discussion of the art of time to initiate a musical artist's quest to become a master of musical time.
We musicians learn to read and write our music for many smart reasons. By writing down my ideas they are more easily remembered. Nothing's better for a composer than when a nice idea for the melody of a song comes along ... and nothing worse than when it vanishes without a trace. But by writing it down, in whatever fashion, even six months later I can bump into that melody again, pick up its vibe, and keep on searching. Notating my ideas can also facilitate sharing my music with other musicians, with really no limit to the size of the group. When one spends time getting their music together, believe me, it's way cool to hear it performed by real musicians. Additionally, if we write it down today, its got a way better chance of getting played years from now, perhaps in a whole newer society or world culture! Remember Greensleeves, that dates from 500 years or so ago? Tis a magical thing indeed how musical sounds and rhythms can connect us back to the flavors of distant cultures, giving us a sense of the pace of life they lived. And by creating or evolving new rhythms from the established ones we cherish, we can create an timeless, organic continuity within the artistic life force of our civilizations.
Time signature theory. Starting with a rhythmically simplistic version of our old time melody "Shortnin", let's examine its time signature, the 4 / 4 fraction at the beginning of the staff line. Each of the four measures in example one below clearly shows us the four quarter notes equaling the four beats per measure as set forth by the 4 / 4 time signature. Click the line and listen, feel and tap your foot to the quarter note value. Theory wise, in this next idea we are motoring a melodic idea created from the major pentatonic color with the quarter note thump. Example 1. (1a)
Something to be said for quarter notes on the beat eh? Try adding a bit of a push or stronger accent on the 2nd and 4th beats of each measure. Using quarter notes on the beat sure does help to lock in the groove yes? So how about those numbers of the time signature fraction, what do they mean? Example 2.
|top # of fraction||4||four beats to a measure|
|bottom # of fraction||4||quarter note gets the beat|
So in 4 / 4 time, every four beats of musical time moves us to the next measure. Like verbal speaking, each musical melody has its own sense of phrasing, which we use the numerical time signature to designate. Let's examine a few of the common rhythm notation symbols used in 4 / 4 time. A note's value is the length of time it is held or sounded. Example 2.
Doing the math in the above example, thinking 4 / 4 time. Example 3.
1 whole note = 2 half notes = 4 quarter notes = 8 eighth notes
Musicians call this rhythmic math process to subdivide the beat, simply halving each note value. When subdividing, we are just breaking any rhythmic value down to its smaller components. This ability to subdivide becomes an integral skill for the master of time. For it is within this subdividing that teaches us the true duration of note values within the moving flow of time of a given tempo.
Thus, the trick for us in learning to notate our rhythms is to simply transfer the feel or rhythm of a phrase into numbers. We do this by singing the melody, getting a feel of its rhythmic pulse, then counting its beats. This allows us to create a time signature which represents the feel and pulse of the melody line within its tempo, in a numerically measured way. We can then notate our ideas in our standard musical notation. Notating rhythms and melodies with these musical note symbols goes quite a ways back in history, so folks have had plenty of time to work out most of the bugs in the system. And while there is potentially always a better way to do something, learning what works today gets us reading, writing and sharing our music, while preparing us to improve on what knowledge and resources we have now. So ... win / win eh? Yep, and that's the way we like it.
While the solid quarter note groove would be a cool bass line, chances are we would not naturally sing the melody of the song "Shortnin" with the rhythms as notated above n'est-ce pas? It's just not all that lyrical. Let's rewrite our melody, rhythmically closer to the way we might sing it. Example 4.
That's better huh? The eighth notes can give our melody a freer, more "jazzy" feel. Get your instrument out if you play one, and try to play both rhythmic versions of this melody. Often it's a matter of singing the line of melody, to internalize its rhythm, then playing the line to work its magic. Sing the line ... play the line ... to bring forth the joyous music found within our hearts and souls.
We as composers have quite a variety of different time signatures and notation values to more accurately write out our melodies and their rhythm. Here is a chart with other common time signatures, what the numbers mean and the style of music we generally find them. Example 5. (1)
|time signature fraction||beats / measure||musical style / groove|
|4 / 4||4 beats to the measure / quarter note gets the beat||folk, blues, rock, jazz, pop, classical|
|3 / 4||3 beats to the measure / quarter note gets the beat||"waltz time", think "Greensleeves"|
|2 / 4||2 beats to the measure / quarter note gets the beat||Latin music, marching bands|
|6 / 8||6 beats to the measure / eighth note gets the beat||think a subdivided 3 / 4|
|12 / 8||12 beats to the measure / eighth note gets the beat||not often used in writing, but creates the "shuffle" feel of blues and earlier jazz|
|2 / 2||2 beats to the measure / half note gets the beat||Latin samba music|
Pretty straight forward, simply matching numbers with specific segments of time. O.k.? So is it possible to categorize musical styles by the rhythms used to create them? Would seem to be the case. In days of old, they had not only the melodic scale church modes for creating melodies, but also rhythmic modes to motor them. (2)
Now the art, "masters of time." The following ideas and practice suggestions are for the serious minded musician. How quickly they are grasped and utilized is of course dependent on what a learner brings to the process. This includes: their innate talent, their ability to set aside ego to learn new things and adjust their existing ideas, their own degree of discipline to persevere in the face of adversity so as to succeed ... all of which combine to create your basic musical constitutional gumption.
Music that gets written down can get a reading by other musicians. What the artist does while reading the written music we call interpretation. Depending on the musical style, jazz, pop or classical for instance, there can be a wide range of interpretation ... or not, as to how the written line gets played. Central to this artistic interpretation lies in the rhythm of the line, often termed the phrasing of the line. Musicians of all of the musical styles we love, folk, the various blues genres, rock, pop, jazz and classical, often focus on creating what is termed a vocal quality to the melody. Their sound, plus their approach to the rhythm of how the line is phrased, combine to create this vocal quality. It's this quality that so often draws us in as listeners. Some part of this attraction is probably tucked away somewhere into our ancient D.N.A., making it so we just can't resist getting closer to the music. A master of time knows about creating this magic of vocal qualities in their lines. They then truly ascend to artistic mastery when they allow their solo performance to breathe and speak in a natural, poetic way, or to perfectly layer in their musical lines to the rhythms created by the group they are performing with.
How to start? Find a metronome, which is a time and tempo setting device that measures musical time by making audible clicks. Turn it on, set it to a easy tempo, and sing a song or melody you love, feeling how your musical beats and pulses match up to the clicks of the metronome. Adjust the metronome to your tempo. Once your clicking along, try to slow your melody line down against the pace of the clicks and feel the "pull" against the time as created by the metronome.
1) See how far back you can pull your vocal without falling off the the back of the beat!
2) Then try to sing exactly on the click, what we call the middle of the beat. When our time is perfected, oftentimes the click sound of the metronome will disappear into the musical sounds we are creating. While this centering on the beat is often a bit stiff sounding, do believe that this middle of the beat interpretation is often the hardest to do. This middle is also a real big part of our Latin and swing jazz sounds, what modern players today might call "even eighths."
3) After finding the middle pulse, try to push the groove of your line a wee bit ahead of the click. Players often call this the "front side or front half" of the beat and use this rhythm to initially create a nice forward motion or accelerating energy to the beginning their musical line or phrase. Although potentially a bit tricky to do without eventually rushing the groove, getting a wee bit out front of the pulse or beat to start a phrase is pretty common. We term these three spots, the back, the middle and the front of the beat. Get something that clicks and try to find these spots within time.
Each of these aspects of the beat, the back, middle and front, create their own rhythmic magic depending on the musical style they are used in. In using the metronome we get a sense of their inherent energy. When we get with other players and mix our time and interpretation in with theirs, that's when the magic begins. For example, knowing that an experienced jazz bass player is going to lay down solid, full value quarter notes in their walking line can allow the melody player to weave an interpretation of their melody using the back part of the beat to pull the time back a wee bit, without goofing things up. This pull or difference of time between the two lines is one neat way to create the exciting swinging rhythms we love in American jazz and blues.
The music we love. All of the musical styles we love and the great players we love to listen too, all have their own signature way that they work their rhythmic magic. Legendary vocalist Ray Charles so often placed his vocal interpretation of the melody way out in front of where the band was. Mr. Charles seems to be charging ahead with his song, then waiting for the band to catch up before starting his next phrase. Find a recording of his version of "America The Beautiful" and feel his magic. Of course, there is no right or wrong in this. Just what works or not. A master of time is one who listens to the time and rhythm around them in performance and simply locks into the existing groove. Once there, they not only energize everyone else's time but also create interesting, provocative, emotional and exciting rhythms that not only compliment and advance the emotional energy of the music being created, but will often bring the rhythmic energy of the entire group to an artistic climax. They do this by weaving their concept of time into the mix of time created by the group and moving everyone forward to a common goal. Cool?
Learning the magic. Knowing that we exist in time, as say measured by a sweep hand clock, as musicians we need to conjure it forth on our own terms. To do this, find a metronome and turn it on. Slow it all the way down. Sense how just the simple clicks can capture the spaces of time that exists between them. This is what we seek to master inside our own consciousness; the space of time between the clicks. So, how can we do this? By clapping our hands along with the beats of the metronome until the metronome click sound melts into our hand clap sound. So we clap with the click of the metronome, then pause and in our minds, project to exactly where the next click in time is, then clap our hands with the click. So simple in theory, yet so elusive in real time. What we seek to strengthen by doing this exercise is our minds ability to consistently imagine and project forward into the space of time ... "in an exact and measured way." Mastering this "mind measure" often becomes a longer term, sought after goal of the serious musician. Cool?
As in learning most new things, going nice and easy, slow and sure at first is often the rule. Mastering things often takes time eh? We of course continue to play nice music during this learning and mastering process regardless. The idea here is that once we understand and begin to strengthen our thought process of time, as we mature as players we will so often times simply get stronger at so much of what we do. We become smarter, better co-coordinate, more experienced etc. On e trick in using the long lengths of time between the clicks as just described, is that we can then begin to subdivide the space that lives between the clicks, creating more rhythmic points between the clicks, easing our task from getting to click to click on time. Subdividing the beat. Example 6.
Look familiar? Subdividing one beat so that two or more points exist between the two clicks, simply shortens up the space that exists between the two long beats of the metronome. Thus, it's usually easier to do. That's why we start with trying to click as slowly as we can, and just on each beat. We need to think, imagine, feel, become patient and get comfortable with the full length of time that exists between the clicks of a slower setting of the metronome. Building our mental strengths upward from these long duration clicks of time not only eases our tasking when subdividing but sets us on the path to becoming a master of time. How? By simply strengthening our ability to mentally focus and concentrate, which will gradually enable us to bite off larger chunks of time for our phrasing. Cool? P.S. For the jazz artist, part of the magic is to make these slowest clicks the 2nd and 4th beats of a measure in ballad time.
Translating the theory of time into musical time. Let's discuss three way cool and important aspects to this translation of time.
1) At this early juncture in our discussions of rhythm, perhaps foremost in translating time theory into musical practice is to recognize the potential for us to rush a wee bit ahead of when the clicks of the metronome occur. This tendency is very, very common for all of us, to anticipate where the clicks should sound. What occurs when this anticipation happens a few times, the music we are creating gradually goes faster. We call this rushing the tempo. Oftentimes while playing, when we realize that this speeding up is happening, we try to slow it down again, this becomes dragging the tempo. Either case tends put put the players out of synch, and we should hear as well as physically feel the results. What suffers of course in all of this time shifting is the emotional and artistic intent of the music. Each melody has a certain personality that is often best brought forth by its own perfect tempo, usually the composers intent. Interpretation is the key word here, and as artists we enjoy artistic liberty so as to place a melody in a tempo that works best for each us. Composers often put a metronome marking in their scores, making it easier for the players to recreate the original intentions of the composer. Such a marking will often look like this in written music. The quarter note = 120. Feel what 120 is like with a popular melody. Example 7.
Somewhat "march like" sounding? And have you seen this type of tempo marking in written music before? It is pretty common in most of the styles we love. So we could set our metronome to 120, get it clicking and play the music at the pace the composer intended yes? That's exactly what the tempo marking is for. Cool?
2) A second key idea in this translation of time theory into musical time is in regards to the rhythmic sounds that musicians call swing. While swing surely deserves its own chapter, I bring it forth here in this mini text due to a key aspect discussed above as to what makes it happen. The rhythmic coolness of swing and the joy it brings to its players and listeners happens when the players involve listen to one another and lock in to feeling the same amount of time between the beats. Thus, their basic pulse is right together as well as many of their subdivided rhythms. The swing thing often occurs when the players improvise or adjust their rhythms to pull a wee bit against the solid pulse. They weave a group sense of time by playing together and off one another simultaneously. Thus, by learning how to clap right with the click of the metronome, we eventually develop the ability to alter the preciseness of the clicks, without rushing or damaging the rhythmic groove of the group. This altered time against a pulse is where swing often lives.
3) A third key aspect of the time theory / musical time dynamic to be discussed here is again about subdividing the beats. While subdividing the beat in half, then in half again to quarters, and half again to eighths is often a challenge, the evenness of these subdivisions make them easier to grasp for most players. But what happens to the rhythm and feel of the melodic line when we divide into odd numbers, say three, five or seven? Hmm ... Well a couple of things at least. First, the difficulty of doing it consistently goes up. Division by three is pretty common and easier than the five and seven subdivisions. Second, the challenge of fitting these odd subdivisions into 4 / 4 time increases, especially in a group setting. Third, that those that master this level of subdividing: often swing the hardest, create the coolest, most imaginative and complex melodies, make the other cool players in their group sound even cooler and generally are able to nuance things that never get nuanced, thus oftentimes completely intriguing and inspiring everyone involved. Perhaps needless to say, groups of five and seven and beyond is a rather advanced, long term goal. I include it here so that one might become aware of the possibilities. And to think that all of this rhythmic ability can gradually evolve organically from developing an initial ability to clap our hands along with a slow clicking metronome. Cool?
Review. The sound of music and its pulse of rhythms can be represented by mathematical numbers. Originally said to be based on the perfect circle, various time signatures were termed perfect or imperfect. The 4/4 was thought to be perfect time, a full four quarters of the circle. Three / four and other divisions thought to be imperfect. (3) So when your listening to your music, try to figure out its time signature by tapping your foot and counting along. By far and away, most of the popular American sounds are in some version of 4 / 4. We as theorists also use numbers to identify musical elements as we did with the numerical scale degrees, musical intervals and chord progressions. We simply translate pitches and intervals into numbers, allowing us to more readily project the same musical ideas from any one of our twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. Thus, our music theory and math go hand in hand.
Vocabulary terms for this chapter. (4)
|music notation||The musical symbols we use to preserve our musical ideas in writing.|
|time signature||A fractional representation of numbers that defines the number of beats per measure and which note value gets the beat.|
|value||The duration of time assigned to a rhythmic symbol based on the time signature.|
|subdivide the beat||Breaking down any rhythmic note value into its smaller rhythmic components.|
|tempo||The rate of speed in which the music flows.|
|interpretation||How the musical artist aurally portrays musical symbols into musical phrases.|
|metronome||Musical device for measuring time and tempo.|
|forward motion||A sense of energy in a musical line.|
|artistic signature||A musical artists aural identity.|
|rush / drag||Two slang terms that imply speeding up or slowing down the original tempo of the music.|
Here is the matching quiz for this chapter. Ace it then move on. If you have any questions, ask your teacher, a musical friend or write me and we'll get it answered. firstname.lastname@example.org
|Eighth notes can give the music a _____ ____.||jazzy feel|
|A _______ ___ _____ is one who interprets and creates a melody line in rhythm and sync with the other musicians in the group.||"master of time"|
Easy quiz eh? Have any questions or need and want more info on rhythm and time? email@example.com
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle
(1) Ottman, Robert. Elementary Harmony, Theory and Practice, Second Edition, "Rhythm" p. 51. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
(2) Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music, p. 248. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960.
(3) Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music, p 302. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960.
(4) Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960.