Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Rhythms R Us

It’s pretty common for people to think they have “rhythm problems.” But what do people really mean by this?

Consider how natural it is for us to have excellent rhythm in daily life, and then go figure why people draw a blank when it comes to musical rhythms. For example, if we were to measure our stride as we walk down the street, I’ll bet our steps would probably be so regular as to be milliseconds apart in timing. If we wrote down the rhythms of our daily conversations, they would be much more complex than almost any music we play. In fact, talking is the best example of how rhythmic we are, because music is so closely related to talking and singing.

I recently had a student who claimed he had a “rhythm problem” and couldn’t play with the proper timings. I asked him to pretend there was a servant at the door, and asked him to order his servant to take out the garbage. (I suggested this because we always issue commands with a strong rhythm…but it is amusing, the ideas that pop out in the heat of a lesson, no?)

musical examples

He said, “Take the GARbage out!” with “take the” as pickup notes to the “GAR” downbeat. In 6/8 time, this would have been written: quarter, eighth (bar line) quarter, eighth, quarter (see example above).

Then I asked him to say it three times in a row. He said it in such perfect rhythm that my point became pretty clear. He had excellent rhythm! The words were spoken the same way each time, with precisely one beat of rest before repeating the phrase.

In fiddling I work often with jigs (6/8 time) and reels (2/2 time). It’s interesting to note that if you say the words, “Go to the store,” it’s likely to come out in jig time, whereas if you added one word and said, “Don’t go to the store,” you would speak in reel time. In both sentences, the first and last words are the downbeats, and we are quite used to fitting other syllables evenly between the beats with amazing precision.

Students who are willing to put a few minutes into writing words to a problematic musical phrase–making a song out of it–never forget the rhythms of it, as long as the syllables fit the notes of the music. It doesn’t matter how meaningful or silly the words are. Just choosing words which fit the rhythm is all that matters.

Of course, the syllables really have to fit. The “Star-Spangled Banner” uses “Oh” for the first two pickup notes in order to put the word “say” on the downbeat. It’s pretty amusing to try singing “Oh say” to the first two notes. Everything ends up off by one syllable!

Good songwriters match words to musical rhythms. Good public speakers use strong rhythms–and any of us who really means what we say is a good speaker, even if it’s only to make sure our kids come in to dinner. Good musicians communicate in the same way–we all have good rhythm when we have something to say.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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