Rhythm is a shaky area for you. You have a difficult time communicating a rhythmic idea unless you can play it; you have a tendency to fall into familiar, repetitive rhythms.
Learn the fundamentals of rhythm, then work through exercises designed to improve your rhythmic cognition.
Music takes place in time. Nothing is more fundamental to music than its temporal aspect. Becoming versed in elements of rhythm will strengthen not only your sense of time but also your phrasing and how you feel accents and syncopations. And it will open creative doors by increasing your musical vocabulary, leading to greater nuance and variety in your playing.
Learn the terminology
Beat refers to the pulse of music. A simple way to find the beat of a particular piece or passage is to tap your foot in time to the music. Tempo is how quickly these beats occur and is usually written above the staff, with a directive like Lento, Allegro, Presto, or a metronome mark, indicating the number of beats per minute (bpm).
Meter is the grouping of beats into measures, which are shown by vertical lines across the staff. In general, the first beat of a metrical grouping has a particular sense of weight or accent. The most standard groupings are duple (grouped in two, counted 1, 2), triple (grouped in three, counted 1, 2, 3), or quadruple meter (grouped in four, and counted 1, 2, 3, 4). There are many other meters, but to start, it’s best to focus on the most basic. Once you understand the concept of meter through this lesson, you’ll be on solid ground for assimilating more complex structures.
Meter is depicted at the beginning of a piece by a time signature—two numbers arranged vertically. The top number specifies how many beats are in a measure; the lower number designates which duration of note represents one beat. So 44—a meter so ubiquitous it is also designated by c, for common time—means there are four beats per measure (quadruple meter) with the quarter note receiving one beat. The symbol 22 means two beats per measure (duple meter, or cut time), with the half note receiving one beat.
Example 1 shows how basic note values and rests are represented visually. The numbers below the music show the relationships between the notes and the beats; in other words they help you count.
Note that two or more consecutive eighth or 16th notes are often beamed together with horizontal lines, as shown in bar 5. An individual eighth note gets one flag, or curved top, as in the first bar of the next example, while a 16th gets two flags, as appearing throughout the last example of this lesson.
In Example 2, you’ll find some ties. A tie connects two or more notes, creating a duration equal to the sum of the notes. A dot next to a note adds half the note’s value to itself (Example 3).
Now try a counting exercise, as shown in Example 4. Set a click to 50 bpm. With your right hand, tap along with the metronome. As you look at the measure, mentally divide it into the number of pulses it contains—in this case, four. As you tap, visualize where each beat is in the measure. This will help you keep your place as you become accustomed to reading music in real time. With your left hand, tap the written note value. Count the durations out loud—not in your head, but actually saying them. For rests, continue to tap the pulse and count the values, but don’ttap with the hand designated for notes.
Once you’ve finished the exercise, switch hands and repeat it. You’ll become ambidextrous right from the beginning. Remember that rhythm is perceived by a combination of sounds and silences, so pay as much attention to rests as to notes.
Pick Up Your Guitar
Once you feel confident negotiating the rhythms in Ex. 4, try playing it on your guitar. Set your metronome click at about 50 bpm. (Move to quicker tempos once you’ve mastered the slow tempo.) Tap your foot with the beats of the metronome, play the notes, and count out loud. Though I have randomly picked the pitch C, you can use any note(s) on the neck to play the example.
Mind the Meters
Now take a quick look at hearing and playing in three frequently used meters (Example 5). Set your metronome to about 80 bpm. As in Ex. 4, tap the pulse with your right hand. Count out loud, emphasizing the one. Then, tapping your foot with the metronome and counting out loud, play the notes on the guitar, emphasizing the notes that fall on the 1.
Work Through a Plethora of 16ths
Example 6, which explores various 16th-note patterns, should keep you busy for quite a while. I recommend spending time on it daily until you really internalize the various rhythms. Begin with a very slow metronome setting. As before, work first on counting. Tap with one hand, in the smallest subdivision of the beat—in this case, the 16th note. With your other hand, tap the written rhythm while counting out loud.
You could find virtually endless permutations by incorporating other note values. The focus here is on the 16th note because that rhythmic unit is a very useful subdivision to master. If you can nail these rhythms, patterns with whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes will be no problem. After you have spent time with saying and tapping the rhythms, pick up your guitar and play them. Tap your foot with the pulse of the metronome (quarter notes, not 16ths), play the patterns on your guitar, and count out loud.
This rhythm lesson may be a mere introduction to an enormous topic, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. With a little work invested, the next time your teacher or music buddy tells you to start a phrase on the second 16th note of the first beat of the measure in 34, you’ll know exactly what they mean—and you’ll be able to play it right away.
Stay tuned for next month’s Basics, in which you’ll delve more deeply into rhythm, checking out triplets, compound meters, and more.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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