How to practice rhythms

Side Note

Note that this is about how to learn and practice rhythms, not how sheet music notates them.

The main thing about practising rhythm is that rhythm is something you have to do. The goal is to train your subconscious mind to stay in time.

Rhythm can be effectively learned and practised by listening, and there are also several ways of vocalising rhythms, which will be discussed later.

It is much easier to start practising rhythms by clapping, or tapping a finger. without trying to play it on ocarina.

When you are first starting out, there's a lot to think about, and dealing with fingering the notes of a melody, as well as when to play them can be overwhelming. And, verbalising rhythms while playing a wind instrument, is impossible.

The two can be practised separately, and your subconscious mind will bring them together.

Practising rhythm - a simple beat

The foundation of rhythms is regular division of time, like the 'pat, pat, pat...' of walking. Give this a try. Click or tap the 'hit' button when you hear the sound.

This tool visualises the timing of your clicks, in relation to the rhythm that it is playing. When the two are synchronised, the vertical bars will align.

Try practising in bursts, like 4 or 8 clicks, trying to get all of them to be in time. Then once you can do that, try some longer runs.

Latency compensation

You may find that even when you are clicking in time the vertical bars do not align. Computers can add a delay between when a sound is played, and when you actually hear it. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reliably compensate for this automatically.

You can compensate using the 'latency' slider, which moves your clicks forwards or backwards in time.

Notice how it sounds when you are playing in time, early and late. The following demonstrates how that sounds. Notice that when the two are exactly in sync, it sounds like there is only one sound:

Rhythm figures

If you are new to music, a rhythm may seem to be just a long string of notes of various durations, but in actuality, rhythms are formed from smaller fragments called 'figures'. Essentially these are the 'words' of rhythm.

For example, taking a half and quarter note, there are 3 permutations in one bar in 4/4 time:


X: 3
M: none
L: 1/4
K: C
G2 G G | G G2 G | G G G2

The number of these distinct patterns in common music is quite small, and learning how to perform some will be really useful.

The two systems for vocalising rhythms

There are two well known ways of vocalising rhythms:

Rhythm syllables This method attaches a unique syllable to each rhythmic duration. For example in the kodally method, 'too' is a half note, and 'ta' is a quarter note.

Counting Counting tracks the number of beats. For example in 4/4, you'd count '1,2,3,4' repeatedly. For a half note, you'd thus count '1,2'.

I am not going to elaborate on these here as they have already been covered by numerous other sources, and searching for 'rhythm syllables' or 'counting rhythms' will give you a lot of results.

Practicing rhythms

Start putting rhythms into a midi tool, loop them, and clap over it in time with what you are hearing.

Practising rhythms in real world music

The rhythms that have been demonstrated above are based on simple ratios, like holding a note for twice, or half as long as another note.

Real human performances don't always work like that, it is quite common that an experienced musician will play a note slightly early or late, or extend the duration of certain notes for expressive reasons.

For example, it is common to 'swing' a rhythm, by extending the note that lands on the beat, to place emphasis on it, while shortening the following note. The underlying pulse / beat remains stable.

Practising by listening to, and copying skilled performances allows you to learn these details.

You can use a digital audio workstation to loop small sections of a recording, and then clap over it.