Contemplating rhythm

May 5th, 2011

Over the years, I’ve spent no small amount of time contemplating rhythm and its many implications on our existence.

I see it on many levels, as a universal force operating at the super micro level—the so-called strings (as in string-theory. Although I harbor some lingering skepticism about this, I’ll defer to the experts here.) to mega waves out in deep space where their oscillations are measured in light-years.

And of course, to the more mundane task of playing classical guitar.

To go back to my previous post.

Playing to me is like navigating a craft down a river, you need both the craft and the skill to navigate your way through that river of time.

Yet why is rhythm so hard to learn and master?

The problem lies with the fact that it exists in its own dimension—time—and it’s very hard to explain time and its passage.

Most attempts with trying to describe or depict time is to use two-dimensional imagery such as a timeline or musical notation.

But time does not exist in two-dimensional space; it’s experienced, one moment at a time. And it’s fleeting. The instant we experience a moment in time, it’s already gone—history.

The same is true of rhythm.

On the musical score, rhythm is notated with symbols indicating relative durations in two-dimensional space.

But in reality, we perceive it by experiencing it one beat at a time.

And—this is the important part—we experience it in anticipations.

Let’s take a simple example.

Let’s say that you’re playing a simple song with one note on every beat.

If you start playing the song at 60 on the metronome, you’re setting up expectations in yourself and in your audience that you’re going to hear one note per second.

To play with good time means you must be able to fulfill those expectations.

In other words, you can’t suddenly change the tempo to two beats per second.

And if you want to create rubatos or ritardandos or accelerandos, you must do them within those expectations too, and make sure they’re done in a smooth and logical manner within that tempo. Otherwise, it’ll sound as if you’ve lost control over your rhythm.

To execute your notes rhythmically, you must anticipate each beat.

To do this, wait for the beat to arrive and when it does, play the note lightly on the beat.

Then let the cycle start again. Wait for the next beat to arrive, play the next note lightly on the beat again, and then let the cycle repeat itself again.

That’s what happens when we play.

We anticipate each beat and when it arrives, we execute our action on that beat.

Having good rhythm in this case simply means having the ability to anticipate correctly when the next beat will arrive, and possessing the technical means to execute on that beat when it does.

And that’s what I mean by being able to navigate down that river, you need both the craft (physical ability) and the skill to navigate that river (rhythmic control).

There’re two important things to note here.

First, the element of waiting—you must never rush or hurry toward the next beat. Wait for it to come and when it comes, place your action lightly on that beat.

Second, your rhythm must be a thing separate from your actual physical execution. You must feel the rhythmic pulse as an entirely SEPARATE PHENOMENON FROM YOUR PLAYING. This is such an important point I have to put it in caps. I’ve also written about this elsewhere on separating the source of your rhythm from your execution.

The above just applies to the minimal requirements of rhythm, playing in time.

We know of course that good rhythm is more than just playing on the beat. It’s a highly expressive device in itself and in the hands of a master, it can create pure magic in itself.

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