Let’s look at the building blocks of rhythm:
The beat is the basic unit of time. It can be expressed by a particular note value, a quarter note for instance, but essentially it is a duration of time. We experience this time span as a beat when it is used in a series of identical time spans. Remember the “thump, thump, thump” of the stereo in the car stopped next to you at the traffic light? Almost everyone can “feel” the beat.
A tempo is established by a series of beats. Tempo is the speed at which the beats repeat. Tempo can be described by a metronome marking, which indicates the number of beats per minute, or by those familiar terms like Allegro or Andante.
Meter is a repeating pattern of beats where some of the beats are more accented than others; the first beat in the pattern is the strongest. Meter is indicated by the meter signature, also called the time signature, at the beginning of the piece. We use bar lines to mark each repetition of the pattern.
The rhythm is formed by the actual notes that fill the beats, the different combinations of note values that are supported by the metric pattern of beats.
So here’s the million dollar question: if you feel your sense of rhythm is shaky, which of these concepts is eluding you?
Here are some ideas to help you get a handle on the situation.
First, you probably have a pretty good feel for basic rhythm. If you had no sense of rhythm at all, you wouldn’t have an interest in music. So given that, there a few things you can do to help hone your rhythmic skills.
1. Get comfortable with the metronome. It’s a great trainer for helping you learn to keep your beats even in length. It can help you subdivide beats accurately, and play rhythms more precisely.
2. Practice feeling the meter. That’s right; not feeling the beat, but the meter. Can you sense the strong and weak beats when you hear music being played? Try tapping along with a recording, accenting the strong beats as you tap. Can you identify what the meter of the piece might be?
3. Practice your scales in subdivisions. Start with playing one note to a beat (use the metronome!). Then repeat the scale, playing two notes to the beat. Then switch to triplets, then four to a beat, etc. It will not just help your finger technique, but it will strengthen your rhythm technique as well.
4. Know your note values. Do some written rhythm drills, if necessary, to reinforce your understanding of the different combinations of note values and how they add up. Practice playing different rhythmic patterns so you can sightread them well when you need to.
5. Bounce a ball! This is a classic exercise to help students internalize the time span of a beat. Using a metronome, bounce a ball so that it hits the floor on one metronome click and catch it on the next click. Make your bounces rhythmically precise. You will be able to not only feel the beat, but you will be able to see it in the distance that the ball covers with each bounce. Try different tempos, or different numbers of bounces per metronome click (subdivisions of the beat!).