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Along with melody and harmony, rhythm is one of the three major aspects of music. Some types of music emphasize the melody aspect. Irish music traditionally doesn't use chorded instruments such as guitar, only melody instruments such as pipes and fiddle. Other music emphasizes the rhythmic aspect such as African drumming or Brazilian samba music.
An African saying goes, "If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance." It just takes a bit of rhythm. Many daily activities have rhythm: walking, stirring up a recipe ("beat 100 times until light"), dancing, and playing music. We do not think it necessary to count when walking, yet we all walk rhythmically. Music, similarly, has a rhythm which we feel with our bodies, and which, if necessary, we can count with our minds. If you have trouble playing an even rhythm, there is a good chance that it will help to take a rhythmic walk while humming the tune you want to learn. Mostly, rhythm is a matter of relaxing into something that your body can already feel.
Most songs have a regular beat, something one can tap a foot to, or dance to, or count "1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4" and so on. The main beats can be divided into parts and some of the notes of a melody will fall on the main beats, others will fall between them. You might count "1&,2&,3&,4&" if you divide each beat into two parts. The notes and their rhythmic implications tell you exactly where these notes fall in the rhythmic scheme of things.
Then there are other songs that have free rhythm. You could not tap your foot rhythmically to the tune. Irish airs, like Ashokan Farewell and The Wild Geese, are frequently played in this a-rhythmic style. In written notation Ashokan Farewell is in 3/4 time and The Wild Geese is in 4/4, but both are usually interpreted with a free rhythm.
An important feature of rhythm is the accent structure. Some notes are played louder than others, allowing the listener to pick out the melody or to feel a rhythmic "groove" (as drummers refer to this phenomenon of a steady, danceable rhythm). The accent structure is one of the most important features of musical playing; a piece becomes much more interesting if all the notes are not played at the same volume or intensity.
Summary: Three aspects of music are rhythm, harmony, and melody, and these three are emphasized differently in different cultures' music. Everyone experiences rhythmic activity. Music is a process of developing control and consistency with that activity. Rhythm can be regular or free (irregular). Accents add interest to musical rhythm.
If you want to learn to read time signatures, notes, and their rhythmic values, see a book on reading music or see my book, Dust Off That Dulcimer and Dance (pp. 35-37).
Types of Rhythms
The characteristic rhythms of many of these types of music come from the fact that the pieces were composed as dance tunes. Waltzes, for example, are always in 3/4 time, counted "1,2,3; 1,2,3" with an accent on the "1" beat. The Texas waltz "Midnight on the Water," and the Irish waltzes "Sí Beag, Sí Mór," and "Southwind" are examples.
A hornpipe is in 4/4 time, but the first partial beat of the measure is a dotted eighth and the other part of the first beat is a sixteenth note. The second beat consists again of a dotted eighth and a sixteenth note, and so on throughout the song (with plenty of variations from this pattern for interest). Many times hornpipes are notated in written music as straight eighth notes, and the player is expected to know that the rhythm is the typical skipping, hornpipe rhythm. An example of a hornpipe is "Rites of Man".
There are several types of rhythms in the family of tunes we call jigs. Single and double jigs are in 6/8 time, counted "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6" with accents on the "1" and "4" beats. Frequently in a single jig, the "2" and "5" beats are silent, so the effect is an uneven, skipping rhythm. "The Road to Lisdoonvarna" is an example of a single jig, and "The Swallowtail Jig" is a double jig. A slip jig, another type of dance, has the same feeling as a jig, except the time signature is 9/8 and there are nine beats to the measure rather than six. "Kid on the Mountain" and "The Butterfly" are examples of slip jigs. Count "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9." A slide has 12 beats to the measure. "O'Keef's Slide" is an example. Sometimes slides are written in 6/8 rather than 12/8 by mistake.
Other 4/4 tunes include reels and hoe-downs
(or square dance tunes). The timing is "1, 2, 3, 4;
1, 2, 3, 4." Some Irish reels include "Star of Munster" and "Farewell to Erin." "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and "Soldier's Joy" are hoe-downs. Reels are a much faster 4/4 form than hornpipes.
Ballads can have any of the rhythmic structures mentioned so far, and they can be singing songs or instrumentals.
There are other dance forms in the Anglo-American repertoire including Polka, Schottische, Set Dance, Hambo, Strathspey, and English Country Dance. They all have their characteristic rhythms and accent structures.
Out of the Western European influenced music discussed so far we find other rhythms, these also highly influenced by dance forms. In Latin America there are rhythms such as Bolero, Cumbia, Bossa Nova, Mambo, Chacha, and Merengue.
Africa is certainly a seat of sophisticated rhythms. Sometimes one player in an ensemble is playing a 12 beat measure with accents on every third beat, another player with accents on every fourth beat, and another with accents on every other beat for a rhythmic effect we know as poly-rhythms. Poly-rhythms have been developed in different ways in Cuba and Brazil to form the highly complex music of these two cultures.
One of the most useful tools for the serious musician, whether beginner or advanced is a metronome. For some people rhythmic consistency comes more easily than to others, but the metronome is an important tool in developing the consistency of a good groove.
Begin to learn to play with a metronome by setting it somewhat slowly, maybe around sixty beats per minute and play one note per beat until you can do that consistently. You might do this exercise for ten minutes each day for a week. Then change speeds, up and down, but stay with a particular speed until you can consistently play on the beat. Then play two notes per beat for a week or so, then one note every other beat, and so on with whatever combinations you can imagine. When you are right on the beat, you may not hear the metronome; that's how you know you are just right. This part of learning to play with a metronome is your first experience of playing with someone else, in this case the metronome. You are not only developing rhythmic consistency, you are learning to listen to something else while you play.
After you can play random notes or maybe scale notes with the metronome consistently, you can begin to work on songs. This process involves various steps. First learn the notes and rhythm of the song without the metronome. Play as slowly as necessary to play the correct rhythm of the song. Then set your metronome to accompany you at this speed. Play at that speed until you can dependably get through the song with very few or no mistakes. Then speed up the metronome by only one notch. Play correctly at that speed. Then another notch and another until you can't play the song without mistakes. Note the metronome setting you ended with for that day of practice. The next day start your practice of that song a few notches slower than you ended the previous day and go through the same process. I usually move up a dozen notches a day using this method, and the next thing you know, you are playing fiddle tunes up to speed.