hands on bongos

When learning a new piece of music, when should a musician work on getting right the rhythm and feel of the piece?


I have long believed it has to be the very first thing to get right and there’s little point playing notes at all unless they are in the desired rhythm and feel.   Tempo, however, is a whole other subject – there’s a lot to be said for precision and even playing tunes at markedly different tempos to internalize the piece better.

Timing is the bedrock of music:  “When a note is struck at the wrong time, it’s the wrong note”.  Getting playing in the right rhythm as soon as possible is why I’ve always sought out structured and inspiring rhythmic backing.  This ultimately lead to  “Song Rhythm Tracks“.

Rhythm and Timing

Practice Makes Permanent

One of the most repeated terms used to and by musicians is that “practice makes perfect”.   I’ve heard this altered to, “practice makes permanent”. i.e. if we repeat a thing over and over then we do internalize it and it becomes a facility we have “without consciously thinking about it”.  This is why we can do complex coordinated movements without much conscious thought such as driving cars and even using a knife and fork.   If you’ve never done these things in your life before they can be very challenging for the very first time, but once performed daily one doesn’t even recognize them as a challenge anymore.  It’s as if an entirely different part of your mind is assigned to the task.  So, what is important is that we are very selective about using this repetition technique and make sure it effects don’t work against us because if what we are practising is not beneficial then it will get internalized just as readily….   So, practice can make perfect;  It will eventually make permanent, but that permanency can defeat you as well as help you.

Developing your own sense of timing

A key aspect of music is rhythm and timing – it’s what can make music come alive, and it’s what can kill it as well.  It’s essential that we develop good rhythm and timing.

If you haven’t yet developed the sense of that regular pulse that is present in most modern music – pop, folk, country, jazz – playing along to something with a pulse is of great benefit because wherever your pulse is lacking it will be clearly shown and you will automatically adjust to follow the pulse and keep the timing.  Great: That’s a real win.   My recommendation is to be very selective about the use of metronomes and click-tracks:  There’s more to rhythm than a pulse!

Misuse of Metronomes and click tracks Considered Harmful

Always using a click-track when you practice and also when playing together in a group will likely work against developing your own human interaction on the pulse and detract from the rhythmic nuances that end up being beaten out by the demanding, oh-so-regular, ‘click’.  In a similar way also, counting when you are jamming with others will be a problem:  Counting the pulses within the meter, such as 1-and-a, 2-and-a,  is an absolutely invaluable aid when learning a new, perhaps rhythmically challenging melody: I’ve heard it said that if you can not count a melody or rhythmic idea out, you don’t really know it:  It’s great to count it out to ensure we really know it, but once you have internalized that melody, it’s time to stop counting it and feel the rhythm and communicate with the others you are playing with without blocking them out by counting in your head.

The wonderful thing about folk playing music together is the human interaction that you miss out on if you are communicating with a click-track instead of the other humans you are playing with, or count out every bar in your head instead of listening to the other musicians.    I’m not the only one who sees it this way:  I’ve heard the British musician Jamie Cullum say he avoids the use of click tracks when jamming and recording because it takes away the human ebb and flow of the music when they are used.   I would hate us to have missed out on the wonderful ebb and flow of his playing.

How to practice and jam?

The Early Beginnings of Private Practice:

If you are learning a new, perhaps challenging, melody for the first time, in private practice, then sure, do count out the meter and use a metronome / click-track selectively and judiciously to check your timing, but, as soon as you’ve confirmed you’ve got it, stop using the metronome or click track asap and don’t use it again for that piece of music, because what was once aiding you to get better rhythmically will now limit your rhythmic feel and hold you back.

Jamming or Gigging with Other Musicians:

We will come to stage two later!   When jamming or gigging, don’t count in your head.  By now you should have internalized the song by private practice and be ready to communicate it with others and counting will detract from listening.   “Let the Melody by your guide”.  If you have the melody in your mind while performing and improvising it will help you keep place without any need to count.  Also, where there is a pause in the melody, supplement with your own melody to help with this.  For example, if the melody has a two bar rest then filling that rest with your own ‘fill melody’ will support using the melody to keep the place in the tune.   Keeping the melody in your head will be the least distraction while listening to the other players unless your sense of rhythm and timing is so good and you are so tight with the other band members that you don’t need even that.  If you are struggling to keep your place then a strong hold on the melody can be the best thing to help this.

Practising alone or perhaps with others:

What to do when you are playing the tune over regularly to internalize it before you play it with others, or even if you never get to play with others?  Firstly,  it would be good to get a sense of the form of the music, and secondly, it would be good to practice, and play, in the rhythmic style of the piece.   I think an ideal, and unrealistic, optimum would be to have a real human band of experienced musicians who know the piece well ready in your practice studio to jam along to.  They will also need to accommodate you by stopping and starting at your command.  That concept has been best addressed by professional musician backing tracks supplied by vendors such as ‘Aebersold’.  They are a great option, but not always a practical one.   If you have purchased one of these, and it includes your tune, in key and style and similar tempo you will be playing it with your band, then, great, do INCLUDE playing along to it as part of this practice.   It can be really enjoyable and allows one to practice improvisation with the aural checks on harmony and form you would not otherwise have.  That is if you improvise over the form and drop a bar or forget a chord change you should hear that and be able to correct it.

Another great option is to play along to artist’s performances of the tune.  Say you are learning Autumn Leaves and you have recordings of it by various artists in your record collection, then play those recordings and play along, ‘accompanying’ with chords or a baseline.  You are interacting with top musicians who are undoubtedly playing the piece well – nothing you internalize there will be as lifeless and damaging as a click-track.  I believe at this time, when you are playing and internalising a tune, it is important to practice it in as many ‘practice formats’ as possible.  Those previously mentioned and also, playing alone the melody by itself, and then the melody and the baseline, then play the baseline and sing the melody, then play the chords and sing the melody, then play the chords and play the melody together.  Do you get the idea? The more variety of ways you hear and perform the tune the better your aural knowledge of it becomes.

So, what about rhythm and timing when you are doing this?  I think the best option is to have a rhythm backing track playing that does not have the baseline or chords but WILL represent the musical form of the piece, where sections start and end, where the energy changes as the performance moves from ‘A’ sections to ‘B’ (or bridge) sections and to middle choruses, which are generally the place for improvisations, and even where four-bar phrases occur etc.   If this rhymic backing is also alive and human and responding to the musical form the song rather than metronomic in its delivery, and is in the rhythmic style you will be playing the piece, you not only have a great foundation for learning the piece but also a hugely enjoyable one as well.

Essentially, it’s the same argument that went for playing along to click tracks.  A click track may expose many faults you may have with the meter and your placement of the chords, your baseline or melody, but it will also install a deadening of the other rhythmic aspects that should be happening.   I suggest never using a click track at this stage; rather use a Song Rhythm Track that has a great sense of rhythm from the audio of real drummers playing real drums in the style you will be playing it and to the song form of the song you are learning.  This is a good idea even if you perform in a drummer-less ensemble.  One can always additionally practice the piece without backing to ensure one can maintain one’s own sense of rhythm and timing without the backing track, but it’s good to get a start from great rhythmic backing first.  So, how to get great sounding human backing tracks in the musical form of your song? There are now “Song Rhythm Tracks” from Alive Drumming providing exactly that…