This two-part post will be useful for teachers who would like a thorough and organized approach to teaching basic rhythm skills, as well as students who want to improve their understanding of rhythm and rhythmic skills.
In Part 1, I presented the 10 basic rhythms and exercises for improving rhythmic reading and performance. In this part, I’ll discuss triplets, polyrhythms, rhythmic feels, and solutions to common rhythmic problems.
Quarter (and Other) Triplets
Students may not realize that any note (not just quarter notes) can be divided into three equal triplets. A quarter note triplet divides a half note into three equal parts, here shown in cut (2/2) time to simplify the counting:
Half note triplets, sixteenth note triplets etc. follow the same principles.
A polyrhythm is two different rhythms played simultaneously. While there are numerous possible polyrhythms, the most important one to get a handle on is 3 against 2:
Students can learn to play the above rhythm accurately by counting sixteenth note triplets for each eighth note. In the following example, the top staff shows the eighth note triplets (3 per beat) to be played or tapped, the bottom staff shows regular eighth notes (2 per beat) to be played or tapped, and the middle staff shows the counting. The arrows indicate how the played or tapped notes correspond with the counting:
Creative keyboardists should know and be able to play the three most popular rhythmic “feels” used in contemporary music. The difference between these three “feels” boils down to how eighth notes are played.
“Straight” or “Even” 8ths Feel
In most rock, pop and folk music, as well as classical music, eighth notes are played “straight,” meaning each eighth note receives exactly half of the quarter note beat (#1 of the 10 basic rhythms).
Unless indicated otherwise (or unless you know that the style requires a different feel), assume that a notated piece is to be played with “straight” or “even” 8ths.
Most blues and some rock styles use a “shuffle” feel. In shuffle, every beat feels like it’s divided into three equal parts (#2 of the 10 basic rhythms). Melodies with a shuffle feel use a variety of rhythms, but almost always make extensive use of #3 of the 10 basic rhythms.
Shuffle tunes are often notated in 12/8 time to avoid having to notate groups of 3 as triplets.
Blues tunes may sometimes indicate a “swing 8ths” feel (described below), but typically this means a simple shuffle feel.
Swing 8ths Feel
Swing is the standard rhythmic feel for most jazz excepting Latin styles. It’s similar to shuffle in that the first note of a pair of 8th notes is longer and the second shorter. But whereas shuffle tends to employ #3 of the 10 basic rhythms quite precisely, in swing the 8th notes are sometimes “straightened out” to sound more like straight 8ths (though not precisely straight), particularly at faster tempos.
At slower tempos swing 8ths feel may be indistinguishable from shuffle feel.
Swing feel often has a slight accent on the upbeat (the “and” of each pair of 8ths).
In notated jazz tunes, swing feel is often assumed even when not explicitly notated.
Solving Rhythmic Problems
Difficulty Feeling the Beat
Rhythm is first and foremost a bodily experience. If a student has trouble feeling or staying with the beat, try the following:
- Have them clap the beat with the metronome or while listening to a recording of a tune.
- Have them count while clapping.
- Ask them to tap on their lap, sway to the beat as you clap a rhythm, or walk around the room in time to the beat while clapping and counting.
Rushing or Dragging
The best solution for rushing ahead of or dragging behind the beat is to use a metronome or rhythm track to keep a steady beat. The goal is to internalize what a steady beat feels like. If a student is playing a tune and finds the metronome distracting to play with, or loses track of it, simplify what they’re doing until they can devote enough attention to it so they don’t lose track of it. Here are some ideas:
- Have them clap and count the beat with the metronome. Ask them to concentrate on the metronome so they hear every click! Have them try to make the click of the metronome “disappear” with their clapping.
- Have them tap a foot and count while using the metronome.
- Have them count the beat using the metronome while tapping or playing the rhythm of one hand at a time with a single key. You might also ask them to tap the beat with their foot.
- Ask them to play and count the rhythm of one hand with the metronome while tapping the beat with the other hand or a foot.
The highly-syncopated rhythms particularly found in ragtime, blues and jazz can be challenging when first encountered, particularly when it’s necessary to play two different rhythms simultaneously (technically polyrhythms). The foundation for mastering syncopated rhythms is complete proficiency with the 10 basic rhythms. After a student has got those down, assign the following exercise:
- Write a two-handed rhythm étude on a grand staff using primarily quarter and eighth notes in the LH, and rhythms #1 and #5-10 with both rests and ties in the RH.
- Practice by counting while tapping each hand on your lap simultaneously or playing two notes on the keyboard.
- Then practice using a metronome set between 50 and 72.
- Write additional études as necessary, increasing the complexity of the LH rhythms by using ties etc.
- For an extra challenge, reverse the hands so the RH plays the simpler rhythm and the LH the more complex rhythm!