“Understanding Tempo and Rhythm”

Casey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

by Casey Cormier

 

No matter what instrument you choose to study, there is no doubt that at some point you will struggle with the proper timing of a piece.  Of course this is the main focus of any drummer, keeping a steady beat while delivering a solid rhythmic pattern.  But singers need to have a good sense of time too; often in my career I’ve worked with incredible vocalists who would come in at the wrong place in a song, causing us backing musicians to quickly alter our position in the piece and follow our wayward leader.  The importance of understanding tempo and rhythm, and the methods of practicing to improve these skills, cannot be overstated.

 

Tempo is the pace of a piece of music.  In pop songs, most often, the tempo stays the same through out the piece.  In art songs, or classical music, the tempo can change as the music proceeds, in which case a conductor comes in very handy.  Tempos are determined in BPMs, or Beats Per Minute.  The easiest tempo to ascertain is 60 BPMs.  60 beats per minute…60 seconds per minute.  Think “one Mississippi, two Mississippi”, or refer to any analog clock, and you’ll here 60 bpm ticking away.  Tempo ranges can be determined from this source, such as:

 

Largo ~ This is the slowest tempo setting, 60 beats per minute or slower.  Think of a slow, sad ballad.  “Something” by the Beatles is 69 bpm, so even slower than that!

Andante ~ Faster than 60 beats per minute, but not twice as fast.  Think of a walking pace, a straight ahead rock song.  “Down on the Corner” by CCR is 108 bpm, on the edge of andante and…

Allegro ~ Full steam ahead!  120 bmp or higher, heard often in up-tempo dance numbers and punk rock. “Rockaway Beach” by the Ramones clocks in at 168 bpm, more than twice as fast as “Something”!

 

If a guitarist were to count off “Rockaway Beach” at 69 beats per minute, you can bet his or her band mates would be raising some eyebrows.  Of course that doesn’t mean that we all need to bring metronomes to every rehearsal, but it does mean that we should consider the tempo of a piece of music before we jump in.  Practicing scales or exercises with a metronome is a great way of helping to improve innate tempo precision, and using one with a piece of music that you are trying to polish for a performance or recording is guaranteed to make you stronger with it.  In fact, most of what you hear on the radio today was recorded with a click track keeping tempo in the musicians’ ears, to guarantee a steady beat throughout.

 

Once you understand tempo, it’s important to grasp the concept of rhythm, or playing notes in a metric pattern.  What?  Let’s break it down this way.  Most of popular music is played in 4/4 time, or four beats in a measure.  Count “1,2,3,4”, in an even fashion and you’ve got it.  What if we wanted to have those same beats but add a beat in between each.  We’d be creating what are called 8th notes, and count “1&2&3&4&” in the same amount of time.  We could mix and match these to create different patterns, such as “1 2& 3 4&” or “1 2&3& 4”.  Songs often have a signature rhythm attached either to their melody or to the supporting instruments.  For example, “1,2,3(rest)1,2&(rest)(rest)” is the rhythm to the beginning riff of Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing”.  If you were to take out those rests and play the same notes, it would cease to be the same song.  Rhythm is the skeletal system of melody, and tempo is its heart beat.

 

So when and how should you practice rhythmic concepts?  I have students break out the metronome to practice a scale they have already conquered melodically; in other words, if they aren’t able to play the pattern properly, then it’s too soon for the metronome.  But once they’re able to maneuver that scale without correction, then we start at 60 bpm, and move up from there.  Any exercise you can do at 60 bpm you’ll eventually be able to do at 120 (twice as fast); I recommend moving up in intervals of 20.  For a song, once the student can read through it accurately, then the metronome is a great polishing tool, but it’s important to take the most difficult part of the piece and determine the playable tempo from there.  If we’re playing “Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin, we’ll determine the tempo to practice from the guitar solo, the most difficult part of the song, and apply that to the whole thing.  The results for a student of any instrument will be a stronger rhythmic foundation and thus a better all-around musician in the making!

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