Practising rhythms

Practising rhythms is mostly a matter of 'repeat after me'. Essentially, there are 3 different approaches to learning and practising rhythms:

  • Listening and copying rhythms by ear.
  • Using a metronome and counting beats.
  • Learning rhythms by ear, using vocalisations as an aid

Vocalisation and visualisation techniques can aid logical understanding and memory recall, yet the only things you absolutely need to learn rhythms are your ears, your hands, and the audio of some rhythms to copy.

Initially, I would recommend practising rhythms by clapping or tapping a finger, without your ocarina. Once you can clap a rhythm, applying it to your music will come naturally.

Practising rhythm - a simple beat

The foundation of rhythms is a simple beat, a steady 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.

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.

Try practising in bursts, 4 or 8 claps. Start the first clap on any metronome tick, and follow it with 4 or 8 more claps, aiming to synchronise the clap with the metronome click. You may find it helpful to vocalise these groups counting '1,2,3,4', or '1,2,3,4, 5,6,7,8'.

As you are doing so, try to notice:

  • How it sounds when you are early or late.
  • What about when you are perfectly in sync?

The following demonstrates how these different cases sound.

Closing your eyes or blindfolding yourself may help you to hear what is happening. People naturally tend to prioritise what they see over what they hear, but in this case you want the opposite. Eliminating visual stimulus can help.

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.

At a basic level, figures in rhythms are formed by holding notes over the duration of multiple beats, or by subdividing a single beat into multiple sub-beats.

For example, how would a rhythm sound if you have a beat, and then hold the following note for the duration of two beats?

Or what about the opposite? Two beats followed by one beat? Note that both of these examples also show a second repetition of the same pattern.

Such rhythmic figures can be practised using a metronome. For example, to practice the first pattern:

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

As you gain experience with rhythms in music, you'll notice that many rhythms are just collections of simple figures like these played in sequence. A melody may, for example, play both of these figures one after each other. Once you've learned to play them separately, putting them together is pretty easy.

More rhythm figures

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.

And of coarse you can do the opposite also, putting the double division first.

When you have a 3 note rhythm figure like this, formed from 2 short notes and one long note, the long note can be placed in-between the two short notes. Doing so, the long note 'bridges' the beat. This is called 'syncopation'.

Learning how to clap a syncopated figure is no more difficult than any other kind of rhythm. Put on a metronome, and count it '1 & - &', and clap, ignoring the intermediate beat.

There is also music that splits each beats into 4, which is usually counted '1, e, and, a'. Practising such subdivisions is often best done at a slower tempo at first, counting once per metronome click to ensure that they are in the correct places.

The number of unique figures in common use in music is relatively small, and its quite possible to learn most of the ones you'll commonly encounter. Try making some more of these figures yourself and practising them, and also make longer rhythms from shorter figures.

Rhythms and beat grouping

In the majority of music you hear and play, rhythms are structured around groups of beats called a 'time signature'. Groupings of 2, 3, or 4 beats being extremely common.

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 |

I opted to use a timeline instead of note symbols in this article as I think it shows the absolute placements of notes in time more clearly. For example, here is the pattern above as a timeline:

Bars are filled with simpler figures, and filler notes.

Music is usually written around a structure of 16 or 32 bars per part (verse or chorus), resulting in a total of 64 or 128 beats per part.

Rhythms spanning multiple bars

It is important to realise that bar lines mark a fixed time division, and the structure or 'phrasing' of the music itself may not align with them. If rhythms are always written within the strict structure implied by bar lines it can make music sound very dull and predictable.

As a result of that, rhythms are very commonly written that span multiple bars.

Rhythms can start on a beat that's not aligned with the bar lines, which is called a pick up or anacrusis.

= Make an example

One such example is a '3,3,2' grouping, where 8 sequential beats are grouped into 3, 3 and 2. To practice such a rhythm, you'd want to count it '1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2', and emphasise the '1' beats (clap more strongly).

Time signature is to a large extent a 'suggestion', and rhythm phrasing doesn't always follow it. Bar lines can look like ideal groupings, but in many cases aren't. The actual phrasing of a rhythm will often span multiple bars, or cross bar lines, and focusing only on the individual bars won't sound right.

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'.

In some cases with very complex rhythms, learning them by ear through listening and brute repetition is the easiest way to learn.

Counting rhythms

This is the method Ive been using during this article.


  • Works well for introducing the basic concepts of rhythm.
  • Useful for measuring the duration of extremely long notes.
  • Practically demonstrates how note durations correspond to beats and subdivision.


  • Becomes disproportionately more complicated as a rhythm is more involved.
  • Easily obscures self-similarities in rhythms.
  • Syncopated (off-beat) patterns can be unintuitive.
  • Rhythms that cross the bar line, and rhythmic phrases spanning multiple bars are unintuitive.
  • Triplets and changes of subdivision are very unintuitive.

Rhythm syllables

Rhythm syllables are essentially a way of adding vocalisations to rhythm patterns that one is otherwise learning by ear. They can serve as a memory aid.

You assign different words or syllables to notes of different lengths, allowing a subconscious association to be built. Longer rhythms can then be created by combining multiple syllables together.


  • Natural growth of apparent complexity as one learns more complex rhythms.
  • Off beat patterns are intuitive as one can directly hear how they sound and copy them.


  • The connection between the rhythm, and how the rhythm relates to beats may be less obvious.

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.