Keeping Time

Keeping Time - The Importance of Rhythm

There are three essential elements of music: pitch (melody and harmony), tone (timbre, volume) and rhythm. Rhythm is the way notes are arranged in time, with every note and rest lasting a set amount of time. Some notes are short and some are long, but each is built on the same scale of time relative to the surrounding notes – a bit like a ruler, but measured in time instead of distance. The consistency in note timing creates a sense of rhythm.

hythm helps give character to pieces of music. For example, if you listen to a familiar piece of music, given the same note pitches but with all notes performed for the same length of time, the music would sound strange. In some cases it would be unrecognisable because the variety of long and short notes are vital to the affect of the music.

Accent is an important aspect of rhythm. An accent is a more stressed beat that occurs at regular intervals. A very common rhythm is the waltz – three beats, with a strong and two weaker counts: one, two, three. Another common rhythm is the march – one, two, one, two - strong, weak. In most styles of music, the strong beat is the first of the bar. (The bars are like the lines on rulers, regularly marking equal intervals – in the music score, they are written as vertical lines that cross the staves, making what looks like boxes throughout the score.)

Since rhythm is so vital to the sound and affect of music, it is important that students learn to keep a consistent rhythm. Although everyone has an inbuilt sense of rhythm (actually as a result of our heart beats), keeping time (keeping a constant rhythm) is one of the most difficult skills to learn – from beginner to advanced levels. Often, when a student is having difficulty understanding or learning a piece of music, the problem comes from not correctly feeling the underlying rhythm. Rhythm also is the basis for playing faster pieces. Practicing different rhythms makes a big difference to the learning progress and performances of pianists.

Practice Suggestions

Using a metronome (or a loud, ticking clock), clap or stamp in time with the ticks. To make this more complex, vary the speed of the metronome – try different speeds, such as 44 or 208. (You’ll probably find it is more difficult to keep consistent taps with the slower beat.)
Again, using a metronome, make up different long and short patterns (e.g. long, short, short) creating accents with the longer taps that start at the same time as the metronome tick. Keep the patterns repetitive, but increase in complexity as you become a master.
Stamp, march, walk and run around the room, counting the steps (one, two, one, two) – keep the steps of each motion regular in time.
Clap and count the note values of every new piece.
Listen for noises in the environment – mechanical and natural. Are there rhythm patterns in these noises? Try clapping the patterns. The car indicator is an obvious one, but also listen for bird calls, washing machines – just about everything! Can you describe the rhythm? Is the tempo fast or slow? Is there an accented pattern?
Use the exercise above for words. Use names and everyday words, as well as interesting or nonsense words – like Timbuktu or Super-cali-fragilistic-expiala-docious! What is the difference in patterns between ‘rasp-ber-ries’ and ‘pea-nut but-ter’? Say the words repeatedly, clapping while you say them.
Listen to recordings of music and clap in time. For a more challenging exercise, see if you can follow the patterns of a single instrument in an ensemble, or discover a pattern that is repeated by different instruments (listening for the melody is a useful tool).
While keeping a simple rhythm by marching with your feet, try a different rhythm with clapping. For example, while marching – one, two, one, two – clap only on one, or clap twice on each count. More difficult exercises include clapping three to every one stamp, clapping long/short/short to every stamp or two stamps, or even clapping three times evenly with every two stamps. See what patterns you can invent.