Getting rhythm

Rhythm is the foundation of music, and it's pretty easy to get rhythm. The only things you absolutely need to learn it are your ears and some rhythms to copy.

We will be starting our journey of learning rhythm by clapping or tapping a finger, without your ocarina. Its helpful to vocalise rhythms at first, and you can't do that while blowing an ocarina.

Once you can clap a rhythm, performing it in your music will come naturally.

Pulse - the basis of rhythm

Pulse is the basis of rhythm. It's a steady, repetitive division of time like the It's the 'boom', 'boom', 'boom' you hear in electronic dance music, the regular tick of a clock, or the pattern of your feet hitting the ground as you walk at a steady pace.

If drawn as a timeline, it looks something like this. Notice that these are not 'notes' yet, just pulses in time.

A good place to begin is observing what it sounds like when you clap early, late or perfectly in time with a pulse. Give this a go:

  • Place both of your hands palms down on a table.
  • Lift your two hands, and place your left hand before your right, you'll hear and feel two sounds.
  • Now gradually reduce the time between when your hands hit.
  • Eventually, both hands hit at exactly the same time, and the two sounds become one.
  • And continue, such that your right hand hits the table first, and you'll once again hear two sounds.

The following tool also allows you to hear this. Initially it plays two sounds perfectly in time. If you drag the 'phase' slider, left or right, the second click will sound early or late.

Now lets put it into practice and clap in time with a pulse.

  • Find yourself a metronome, there are many online ones if you search for 'metronome'.
  • Set it to 60 bpm A metronome produces a steady consistent click. BPM means beats per minute, and 'beat' and 'pulse' are relatively synonymous, although there are subtleties that will be addressed later in the book.
  • Clap every time you hear a click, aiming to align the sound of your clap to the sound of the click.

Try practising in bursts, 4 or 8 claps. You may find it helpful to vocalise these groups counting '1,2,3,4', or '1,2,3,4, 5,6,7,8' along with each click.

It might help you hear what's happening if you close your eyes or blindfold yourself. People naturally prioritise what they see over what they hear. In this case you want the opposite and eliminating visual stimulus can help.

Visualising rhythmic accuracy

You may also find the following tool helpful. It visualises the timing of your clicks, in relation to a metronome. When you are exactly in time the vertical bars will align.

Note that if the bars do not align even when you click in time, you need to adjust the 'latency compensation' slider. Computers have a delay between when a sound is triggered and when you hear it. Unfortunately it is impossible to compensate for this automatically.

As you practice, try to start feeling a pulse internally. For example, imagine a drum beat or metronome click in your head. You may also find it helpful to tap your foot in time with the pulse.

The building blocks of rhythm

You can think of the pulse like a clothesline supporting your laundry. Notes are 'hung from' the pulse, starting a sound at the beginning of one pulse, and holding it until just before the start of the next one.

== Graphic here

While the pulse defines the overall structure, it is not prescriptive. Notes can be held over the duration of multiple pulses. For example, how would a rhythm sound if you were to have one note played for one a beat, and then hold the following note for the duration of two beats?

Using the clothesline analogy, if your 'one beat notes' were a t-shirt, the longer notes would be something wider, such as a towel.

Give this a try:

  • Put on a metronome.
  • Count 1,2,3 in time with each click.
  • Clap on beats 1 and 2, but ignore beat 3.

Also have a go with this rhythm, which is the opposite, a one beat note, followed by a two beat note.

Rhythm notation

We notate rhythms using symbols to represent distinct numbers of beats. The following symbol is called a 'crotchet' or 'quarter note', and we will be using it to represent the duration of one beat.

=== Graphic ....

And this symbol will be used to represent a duration of two beats. It's called a 'minim' or 'half note', and as you will know from maths, a half is twice as much as a quarter.

=== Graphic ....

Using these symbols, we can write out rhythms of arbitrary complexity and length.

Note that 'a quarter note IS NOT always equal to one beat, and exactly how the symbols relate to the beat changes due to something called a 'time signature, which will be discussed later.

Internalising a rhythm

You might be able to count it out. However the end goal is to just instinctively know what some notation sounds like the instant you see it. And you can do that by practising the same rhythms every day. You'll gradually start to internalise them.

Subdividing the beat

Each beat can be split into two sub-beats. When counting these, you may find it useful to double the tempo of the metronome and count the 'and', so that you know you are getting it in the correct place. Once you get a feel for it, slow the metronome back down, and count 'and' in the empty space between the two beats.

In music notation, we show that using this symbol, which is called a 'quaver' or 'eighth note'. To keep things simple for now, well only be using pairs of eighth notes, which are usually drawn together as a single symbol with a 'beam' across the top.

Explain how to practice this.

Rests and ties

A rest is a symbol much like a note. They represent a given period of time, but unlike a note, a rest tells you to play noting for that period of time, to 'take a rest'.

This is a quarter rest:

== need graphic

Ties are another thing which take two notes and join them together. They tell you to play a note with a duration equal to the two combined.

Grouping beats, and the time signature

You may have noticed that some of the simple rhythms we've explored are based around groups of 3 beats (counting to 3), whereas others have been based on groups of 2, and other still groups of 4.

Grouping notes in this way is so common that we have a term for it, the 'time signature'.

How time signatures express beat grouping is related to music notation, and is discussed in Understanding rhythm, but for the purpose of practising rhythms, you need only know that a time signature is effectively a 'bucket' containing a fixed number of beats. It can contain notes of different durations.

X: 1
C2C2C2C2 | C/2CC/2 C2CC2C |

If you pay attention while listening to music, you'll probably hear rhythms structured around groups of 4 (4/4). Groupings of 2 (2/4) or 3 (3/4) are less common. Delilah by Tom Jones for example is in 3/4.

Rhythmic figures

As you gain experience with music, you'll start to notice that the same rhythmic patterns show up over and over. Such distinct patterns are called 'figures', and are analogious to words in english. We will be discussing figures in more detail later in the book, but for now just realise that once you've learned a figure, you know it. If you see it show up in a different place, all you need to do is play it.

More rhythms to practice

What's been taught here covers rhythms up to 'grade 1' in the ABRSM wind curriculum.

Here is a tool to generate random rhythms for you to practice.

Moving forwards

What you've learned here will help you learn rhythms all the way from the absolute basics, up to an expert level. All rhythms are based around these same concepts of variation around an underlying pulse, just the density of the subdivisions are higher.

One thing that's worth noting is that while we notate rhythms 'mathematically' using numbers of beats, experienced musicians don't play like that. To give a few examples, rhythms may be swung, stretching and cutting the lengths of notes expression. The pulse overall may also speed up or slow down.

Details like this can be learned pretty easily by playing over and copying aspects of performances you enjoy. We learned how it sounds when a note is played early or late at the start, and this is all you need. When you are listening, notice if your note was played late or early, and adjust as you need to. You can use a digital audio workstation to loop small sections of a recording, and then clap or play over it.

I recommend practising your rhythms both in the 'mathematical' way, as well as the 'human' way. With some time and experience it will start to enable you to hear exactly how a performer is varying their rhythm, giving you a deeper appreciation for the music you are playing.