Rhythm – Theory

Rhythm is a very important element for any musician. But the vast majority ends up leaving this study aside, because they think that rhythm is something innate to human beings: “One who is born with rhythm does not need to practice rhythm, this is a task only for those who have difficulties in this regard”. Well, that idea is completely wrong!

All musicians need to study and practice rhythm, just as they need to practice any other technique, because rhythm can also be improved and developed.

The first tip for those who want to develop in the field of rhythm is to always play with a metronome by their side. Using a metronome in technical training is like having a military general at your side saying: “Don’t get out of tempo!” This makes the musician develop not only precision, but also accentuation, a very important factor for any instrumentalist.

Great, but before continuing on this topic, we recommend that you read the article “sheet music“, since we will use some resources from sheet music here to represent the rhythms, especially the part that mentions bars.

Well, we already learned what a 4/4 time means in the sheet music article: four quarter notes per measure. Just to refresh your mind, see how many notes fit in a measure in the representations below:

4/4 = Fits 4 quarter notes

4/2 = Fits 4 half notes

4/8 = Fits 4 8th notes

2/4 = Fits 2 quarter notes

3/1 = Fits 3 whole notes

5/32 = Fits 5 32nd notes

7/2 = Fits 7 half notes

As we already mentioned, the 4/4 time is the most common to be used in music. In this beat, you can make a count, in the music rhythm, from 1 to 4, restarting the count again, without any mismatch with the melody.

Take, for example, the song Rolling in the Deep:

As of 00:23 in this song, when the bass drum marks the beat: “Boom”, “boom”, “boom”, “boom”, you will count from 1 to 4 and start over again, following the “boom” of the drums as follows:

rhythm Rolling in the Deep

Note that there is a perfect match of this count with the melody. This means that this song is in 4/4 time.

As the 4/4 time is the most practiced, most musicians feel uncomfortable when faced with songs which are not in the 4/4 time.

For example, watch the introduction of the song Dreaming Awake, from the Swedish progressive metal band Harmony:

As soon as we start the song, we will do the same count as we did for the previous song. This time, the snare drum is the one that will help us set the tempo.

Make a count (1, 2, 3, 4) in such a way that the first beat of the snare is at number 3, that is, when the song starts, you start counting at such a speed that the number 3 falls on top of the first hit of the snare. This is going to be our counting speed for this song. Count to 4 and start counting again, just as you did in the previous song.

Did you notice that the song doesn’t fit well with that count? The guitar is making a repetitive riff, but this riff is not fitting well with our count, because when we get to number 4 and start counting again, the song is at a different point, out of alignment. This is happening because the introduction of this song is not in 4/4 time, but 7/4.

But how can we find out that it is in the 7/4 time? Well, repeat the same count you were doing, at the same speed, but instead of counting only to 4, count to 7 and then start over. See how it all came together now? The guitar riff follows the count until 7 and then starts again.

Note: Our analysis of this song focused only on the first part of the introduction, because in reality, the complete introduction starts with 3 bars in 7/4 time signature and then makes a bar in 8/4 time signature. This last measure can also be seen as two consecutive 4/4 bars. Likewise, the first bars we saw (7/4) can be seen as a sum of a 3/4 bar with a 4/4 bar. We prefer to treat these bars here as 7/4 and 8/4 to make a reference to our count and to make it easier to follow.

When the vocalist starts to sing, the song’s time signature becomes 4/4. Notice how this song doesn’t keep the same time signature, but alternates between 7/4 and 4/4. This situation is not common in popular music. So it is interesting to pick up songs with complex times to practice and lose the addiction of just being comfortable with 4/4 songs.

Let’s see another example now of 3/4 time signature, the song “Ele é exaltado”:

Check the count below, in the rhythm that accompanies the lyrics of the song:

3-4 time signature

Very well, now that we have learned to identify these odd time signatures, try to observe, as an exercise, that the song Take Five, played by the Dave Brubeck jazz quartet, is in the 5/4 measure:

A band that deserves prominence in this sense for having several songs with “unusual” time signatures is the Canadian band Rush, which influenced a large part of the Rock/Metal segment to incorporate complex time signatures in their compositions (for example, the virtuous American band Dream Theater).

Go to: Offbeat

Back to: Module 12