The study of rhythm has been sadly neglected in the world of music education. Unlike other musical concepts, developing rhythmic proficiency is a topic that lacks a clear pedagogical framework. Perhaps the topic of rhythm is naively viewed as strictly for percussionists. Or perhaps it’s assumed that rhythmic competency develops naturally with musical maturity, so why talk about it?

Nonetheless, some people need specific guidance with their sense of time.  Those that suffer from this problem are acutely aware of it, of course, whether they admit it or not. But the question that dogs them is whether to accept it or fix it. The outcome of the first choice is well known. Ignoring rhythmic problems is equivalent to forgoing a serious career in music: musicians will not want to work with you and no one will enjoy listening to you play. Given its importance, one has to wonder why there are so few, if any, courses and books that specifically address this sensitive topic.

Here’s the headline. Contrary to popular belief, the broad symptom of having bad time is not something you have to endure. It can be overcome. Like overcoming any problem, it’s a matter of behavioral changes. You’ll first need to learn the essential components that define a time feel. Then learn what can be done to correct the bad habits that perpetuate the problems. You may need to just relax when you play. You may need to turn up the volume on your internal clock. You might need to change your listening habits on the stage. It can be many things, but if you treat them as individual parts of a whole it becomes a manageable issue rather than a holistic failure.

In this article, I outline a systematic approach to addressing these issues by looking at the following patterns of musical behaviors that contribute to one’s time feel.

  1. Recognizing Tension
  2. Listening and Focus
  3. Developing Evenness
  4. Counting/Feeling: Developing Continuous Time Awareness
  5. Ideal Beat Placement
  6. Learning the Patterns
  7. Odds and Ends

Recognizing Tension

There is a simple correlation between being relaxed and playing good time. The physiology of being tense, uptight, or anxious is completely at odds with performing music. Learning to recognize when you’re carrying tension is the first step toward correcting time problems.

Ultimately your goal should be to play in a completely relaxed state. It should be no different than how you feel sitting here reading this article. Getting to this point though will require changing old habits, which if you’ve had them for a long time may take some work to correct.

Kenny Werner talks a lot about relaxation and music in his seminal book Effortless Mastery (if you haven’t read it, please do so). The essence of his message is that performing music should psychologically be no different than eating food or lying on the beach. That same sense of detachment, even indifference, will allow you to channel the creative magic that is music. In other words, the act of playing your instrument should not cause you stress. It should be natural, normal, and easy. If it isn’t, simply “do” less.

So how do you get started on this? You first need to determine if you are indeed carrying tension while you play. Here’s a simple test. Start playing your instrument as you would normally. At some random point, freeze in place and observe your body. Are you shoulders raised? Are you arms tense? Are you holding your breath? Were you humming? Is your heart racing? In other words, do you feel any different than you do while performing mundane tasks? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to undo this behavior. Tension is completely unnecessary. It does not make you play better. It does not make you more serious about your music. Tension is your enemy. Repeat this test often until you recognize the sensation of this bad habit.

Next you need to do something really strange. Start playing your instrument with absolute detachment. On a boring technical exercise, this may be easy enough. But try doing it while churning through Giant Steps or some other more challenging piece. Take a mental snapshot of this sensation. It’s weird, right? This is your goal.

You will observe a significant improvement in your playing once you learn to maintain a state of complete relaxation. Consider this your first step to recovery.

Listening and Focus

The next important behavioral pattern related to rhythmic sensibilities is listening. This may seem obvious, but try to observe how often your focus drifts when you play. It may surprise you. However, listening is more than just not daydreaming. You can focus too hard, try too hard to do well, and suddenly you find yourself making lots of mistakes. In a sense, trying too hard to focus is a form of losing focus. This is because the act of trying causes your mind to start talking over the music around you. Thus, once you get too involved in the “try” reflex, you’ve abandoned true listening.

True listening is a difficult skill to attain. It requires above all, staying interested in what you’re doing. Think about what happens when you start daydreaming during a movie; you suddenly realize that you missed several minutes of dialogue. Conversely if you’re truly interested in what’s on screen, you become a part of the movie.

Next, listening has to be done from a relaxed state. If you start worrying or self-analyzing in realtime, you risk becoming unglued from the music. These slips can happen in an instant too. Do not give them an opportunity to bite. Stay calm, stay involved, but always be present in the music.

Developing Evenness

The symptom: Rushing, dragging, playing sloppy lines.

You are now playing in a more relaxed state. You do not hold your breath, bite your lips, hunch your shoulders, tighten your arms, etc.  With this in place, the next step, developing evenness, will make more sense.

I strongly recommend that in analyzing your playing that you employ some sort of Slow-down tool, be it a software program like “The Amazing Slow-downer”, a tape with a half-speed switch, or a MIDI sequencer. Record yourself at different tempos then listen back at a slower tempo to hear each note clearly. Are you lines even or sloppy? Is your timing consistent?

Your goal should be to execute lines at any tempo with absolute precision. On an exaggerated level, this means removing the swing feel from your lines, which will be required at first.

Once you start hearing what evenness sounds like, how good it sounds compared to the sloppy affectations of a bad swing feel, you’ll want to employ it on everything you do. Indeed, methodical evenness can have a striking effect on any tempo, particularly the faster ones. Also, it’s simply not possible to rush if you’re playing evenly! However, as you develop this, you’ll learn to how to incorporate it back into stylistic phrasing, such as swing and funk.

Practice: using a metronome, practice playing eighth note lines completely evenly across a range of tempos. Remove swing feel and other affectations for best results.

Masters of Evenness: Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, George Benson, Horace Silver, Michael Brecker

Counting/Feeling: Developing Continuous Time Awareness

The symptom: missing entrances after drum solos, getting off the form during solos, playing rhythmic figures poorly, inability to play in odd meters

So now you’re playing more evenly, but you still find yourself struggling when trading 8’s with the drummer. And you often screw up simple rhythmic figures at slower tempos. It’s time to start counting.

Counting and subdividing may seem like an obvious practice, but then why do so many people refuse to actually do it when they play? I suspect many musicians regard it as an amateur tendency. Or maybe just the act of tapping your foot is all that’s needed. However, if you’re struggling with any of these problems, you’re clearly not doing it right, if at all.

For starters, you need to be able to keep the pulse clicking inside you when you perform. The goal is to be able to feel the subdivisions on any quarter note. You should develop your awareness to these inner pulses, because the more clearly you feel them, the better you will do when the drummer decides to throw you a curve or when you have to play a rhythmic figure or hit with the band. Tapping your foot is unreliable. It’s easily fooled, often sloppy, and creates to unnecessary physical tension. A better way to “clock” with the pulse, and one I’ve seen used by some of the very best players, is rather odd, but it works. It’s a pulse created by clicking the tongue quietly against the roof of your mouth. I know a drummer who tours with a major jazz artist. When he’s in town and I’m lucky enough to play with him, I can hear him keeping a pulse in his mouth! I finally asked him about it. He said, “yeah, it helps me divide up the time”. I later heard an isolated piano mic from a live gig by a Blue Note pianist. He was doing the same thing! It’s subtle, doesn’t expend a lot of energy, and you can hear it while you play.

The next routine you’ll need to get into is working with your metronome in the right way. I strongly recommend you practice playing scales first as eight notes, then as triplets, and finally as 16ths against the same quarter note pulse. Do not stop between these transitions (“metric modulations”). Pick a tempo where you can execute the 16ths evenly and without discomfort because this is not an exercise to make you play faster (though that might be a side-effect!). To goal is to learn how to modulate between the various subdivisions.

Subdivisions do not end with 16th notes, nor do they only consist of eighths and triplets. I’m reminded of something that Kenny Werner told me at the end of a lesson. When I asked him what he was working on, he responded “Rhythm. I’m bored with harmony. Harmony is finite, but rhythm is infinitely divisible. You’ll never run out of things to do within the same structure.” [paraphrased]

In a way, his point is a lot like looking at the sky on a clear night. With the naked eye and lots of city lights, you may only see a few stars and a couple planets. But go lay on a beach in Carmel, California, or drive through the hills of Texas. You will see millions of stars. They’re all there. You just need to remove the light pollution to see them. The same thing holds with subdivisions: these possibilities always exist, but we need to clear our mind to feel them.

To that end, you can start to experiment with modulations between wider divisions – eighths to 16th triplets, quarters to 16ths, fives to threes, and so on.

One the other end of the counting spectrum is what we call the bigger beat or “superdividing”. Do you know where the downbeat is, or are you so busy subdividing that you’ve narrowed your perceptions to the immediate quarter note?

A very challenging, but incredibly rewarding practice technique is to count out loud on these bigger beats. Start with quarter notes then progressively cut it in half. Can you count the downbeat only? Every other measure? Every four bars? It’s hard! But it’s important too.

Practice: counting both internally and out loud, sub-dividing, metric modulation, finding the bigger beat

Ideal Beat Placement

The symptom: Your playing sounds rushed, edgy, uncomfortable.

All successful players have one thing in common: great beat placement. That is, their notes land in place that is pleasing to the ear. This almost always means that those notes land right after the beat, sometimes on it, but never ahead of it. Pick up any recording you like and confirm this. It’s uniform across genres.

Is this a problem you possess? The best way to find out is to record yourself, preferably with a group, then play it back through a slow-down tool. You’ll hear immediately where your notes land. If they’re ahead of the beat or inconsistently around the beat, you have some work to do.

The key to solving this problem is surprisingly simple. So simple that most people simply overlook it and continue to sabotage their playing. It goes back to the first section of this article. You need to relax!

This is where personalities play a prominent role in one’s musical identity. Those who live in a world ahead of the beat tend to also be hyperactive and impatient. They tend to talk too fast, eat too fast, think too fast, and so on. It doesn’t necessarily mean that to play behind the beat you need to be a laid-back person, but the chances are pretty good that these traits seep into one’s playing too.

I remember sitting with Joe Henderson once while he assembled his horn. It took a long time. He didn’t care that people were waiting for him at a rehearsal. His pace was his own. When he finally put the instrument in his mouth and start playing, the notes were beautiful, perfectly placed and incredibly swinging. I later realized what an important lesson it had been just to watch this master outside of a musical context!

Of course, you will probably not be able to alter your personality, but you can certainly develop an awareness of tension and impatience in your playing.

The revelation I had with all this, since I am one of those hyperactive types, is that music is not something that requires agitation. Every moment is important and needs to be savored. Achieving a relaxed state in your music means dispensing of old tension-centric habits we talked about in the first section.

Going back to Joe Henderson. You could see complete peacefulness in his disposition when he performed. This is not to say he was not intensely involved in what he did, but he didn’t reach that intensity through agitation.

The key to relaxation which in turn creates better beat placement is confidence and self-awareness. You must be confident that you know where the pulse is, that you’re playing evenly, and that it’s okay to be calm. It’s an amazing sensation once you discover it. The other night on a gig, I pulled all my tricks for this solo, but it did with a sense of detachment that made it almost feel insincere. Yet, it absolutely went over to those in the club and the other musicians with whom I was performing. I continued playing everything with this sense of calm. My execution was greatly improved and I was able to follow long drum solos from a player obsessed with cross-the-bar line phrasing and metric modulation. I don’t want to approach everything with an overwhelming sense of detachment, because I love music and it can be very moving. But I needed to prove to myself that relaxation is far more important than enthusiasm. A great performance therefore is about balancing the two.

In the context of this topic, I can’t say enough about Hip-Hop. The great Hip-Hop artists are masters of everything discussed this far, but particularly beat placement. Listen to Snoop Dogg consistently drop his words right behind the beat. It’s a beautiful thing. Listen to Dexter Gordon do the same thing. There’s so much to learn from these guys. One of word of caution though. Trying too hard to play behind the beat can sound affected and even cause you to drag. Dragging sounds even worse than rushing to most people. A better approach is to simply work on your inner clock, relax, and let the music happen naturally. This will solve the beat placement problem automatically!

Practice: breathing, patience, confidence, self-awareness, waiting for the beat then playing, shifting the beat placement: try way behind the beat, then right on it.

Masters of beat placement: Snoop Dogg (and most good Hip-Hop artists), Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash (seriously!), Shirley Horn, Frank Sinatra, Joe Sample.

Learning the Patterns

The symptom: Your lines are rhythmically flat and repetitive.

Rhythm has its own cache of “licks”. Just as you’ve studied diminished lines, melodic minor scales, and poly chords, you should draw from the enormous arsenal of rhythmic phrases that the great players use. One of the milestones in becoming a rhythmic musician, is learning how to transcend the jail cell of the barline and the dominate subdivision. This includes breaking the monotony of playing an endless stream of eighth notes. I once worked with a drummer who was obsessed with patterns. He used to take me out into the parking lot on breaks and make me clap phrases while he counted out loud. Yes, this was a bit anal but it turned out to be a game changer for me. Suddenly I could hear “triplets in even groupings”, “eighths in odd groupings”, and other seemingly exotic sounds. To my ears now these are completely run-of-the-mill sounds, but not at the time.

There are so many types of rhythmic licks, I couldn’t even begin to cover them all. My advice? Talk to a player you admire and see what they recommend. Also whenever you hear a recording with an interesting pattern, copy it! Listen to Chick and Herbie. Listen to drum solos. In fact, that’s another area you should cover. Focus entirely on keeping up with the masters on their recordings. Nothing better than the real thing.

One final comment on this. Bach proved early on that you needn’t start every phrase on the downbeat. Most of the counterpoint lines in his music begin on an offbeat (listen to the Inventions for examples of this). Similarly with jazz, think about starting phrases on the stronger beats — two and four, upbeats. One and three are weak beats. Phrase through them, not on them. The classic Miles Davis solo on “So What” is a fine example of this: simple, direct and always promoting a swing feel via emphasis on two and four.

Practice: basic polyrhythms (2:3, 3:4), playing triplets in fours, eights in fives, practice odd meter pairings like 3+2 and 4+3, study the great soloists and how they incorporate rhythmic patterns into their playing.

Masters Pattern Players: Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Robert Glasper, Aaron Parks, Chris Dave, Tony Williams.

Odds and Ends

Alcohol: You play in bars. Wine is flowing. Do yourself a favor: drink after the gig. Alcohol works inversely with all the methods mentioned above. The more you drink, the worse you will play. Trust me. Resist the urge.

Misconceptions: Yes, some people have better time than others. Some people are smarter. Some people are taller, shorter, greener, meaner, happier, and older too. Disregard the negativity of absolutes, the concerns of genetics, and other excuses to fail and get to work!

Upgrade: One of the best ways to fast-track your rhythmic evolution is to surround yourself with players who have a great time feel. You need to feel their time to better understand how to create it within yourself. This is why kids who grow up in rhythmic environments have such an advantage. By contrast, playing with musicians who struggle in this area will only  slow your progress. It sounds a little cruel, but if you want to get better, you need to start playing with better players.

Confidence: Learn to trust your self. So much of musicianship is bravado. Jazz musicians, in particular, are extremely competitive. If you show weakness, it will be used against you. But in its more pure forms, confidence is the power of positive thinking. Believe in yourself. The majority of our problems are self-inflicted, after all.

Ongoing Work: These things take time and they need constant attention. Don’t think that just because you succeeded once, you’re off the hook. Keep working at it, even if you don’t think you need to. This is a musical lifestyle change.