Can I learn rhythm?
June 10, 2014 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to be a better musician. I have a poor sense of rhythm. I can get by, but I wish I were better. Is there anything I can do? Listening to beats in headphones all day? Or am I doomed to just try my hardest and being mediocre?
posted by cmm to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Get a metronome. Try to hit your finger on something every time there's a beat. Try to predict when the next beat will come. Do it at different speeds. You'll get to where you can reliably count intervals of the same length is your head. Then count in your head when you play.

Playing with the metronome counting the beat will also help.
posted by ubiquity at 9:26 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by ropeladder at 9:29 AM on June 10, 2014

Listening will help a tiny little bit. Actually practicing will help a whole lot more. I am a musician, and I natively have a very poor sense of rhythm but I perform rhythmically complex works all the time. Here's how I practice -- I'm assuming here that you can read rhythms and know how to translate notations into rhythm patterns, but that you're just really bad at it:

first, find yourself some rhythm examples to work off of. I usually use whatever piece I'm working on, but you can find a bunch by searching for "sight reading rhythm examples" online. Then, pull out your handy metronome -- I use the Pro Metronome app on my iphone, because it supports subdivisions and polyrhythms -- and set it for VERY SLOW. Like, 50. or 35. Then, speak the rhythm against the metronome, and once you can do it slow, speed it up gradually, in 10 or 15 bpm increments. You may be tempted to skip the metronome because it is annoying, but it's annoying because it keeps you on beat, so as awful as it is, you really need it.

I like to count rhythms on numbers, "one, two, three and four. One e and a two e and a three and four," for example. The "one e and a" etc is for sixteenth notes, the "one and two and" is for eighth notes. Triplets are "one and a two and a." You may find a different method that works better for you, but that one is pretty tried and true; it gets a little rocky once you get into quintuplets and septuplets but that may be beyond the scope of this tutorial anyway.

If you spend fifteen minutes at this every day, you WILL get better at it. I promise. Particularly if you use some sort of counting system, you will find you get to the point where the different rhythmic patterns are in your ear and your brain and your muscles, and when you listen to music you'll start analyzing it rhythmically and your skill will really take off.
posted by KathrynT at 9:34 AM on June 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Dance more! Let the beat take over your whole body.
posted by mareli at 9:42 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Dance. I play bass (rather poorly) and I have a good intellectual sense of rhythm, but when it comes to putting fingers to strings I'm always a little bit off.

Dancing (alone, of course) really helps me feel rhythm in my whole body instead of just my mind. Even if it's just simple marching to a beat, embodying rhythm that way helps me improve rapidly. If I incorporate some rhythmic movement when I play it helps me maintain the beat and feel less bunched-up.

Making music is all about externalizing an internal state, and that can happen in all parts of your body, not just the parts that touch your instrument.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2014

Nothing helped my sense of rhythm more than being in marching band. It made me isolate the beat in hundreds of different songs in many different styles. This probably doesn't help you, but perhaps it can provide you with some food for thought.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:46 AM on June 10, 2014

What do you mean by poor sense of rhythm? Can't anticipate the down beat? Can't keep time/tempo? Can't break out of a straight 4/4 to more syncopation and poly-rhythms? Is your playing too rigid and stiff and you would like to swing more or play behind the beat?

When I want to break out of my rhythmic comfort zone I'll often put on a repeating loop of a 4/4 beat ( think "staying alive" by the bee gees or "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson) - I'll start with improvising on the beat, playing fairly rigid, quarter and eight note parts of a scale or chords...then I'll drift off and use the beat as a grounding reference. But it's always there. Kick snare kick snare. I can always come back to playing with the beat if I drift too far off.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 10:11 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Listening to beats in headphones all day...

Yes, pretty much this. First, get a metronome. Then practice with it, both with and without your instrument, without fail. Finally, consciously put the tempo in your body: left foot, head, hip, whatev...your body keeps time, not your noggin.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:13 AM on June 10, 2014

Is there a community band in your area? They typically welcome new members, especially for percussion. You could probably just show up to the next rehearsal and ask to play a piece or two, assuming you can read music. They typically rehearse every week, which would give you a reason to practice. The ones I have seen perform many times a year, moving through quite a bit of repertoire so you will get exposure to multiple meters and styles (straight, swung, etc.)
posted by wnissen at 10:46 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you play, you need to hear as small a rhythmic subdivision as possible. Even if you are hitting quarter notes, you need to be able to hear the sixteenth notes. That's how you "feel" when the next quarter note is coming. It's all about being able to count independently while you play. You are never "waiting" for the next note, you are always "on" the current note, whether you making noise on your instrument or not.
posted by grog at 11:10 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you're listening, break down the beats as much as you can, as describe by grog, also counting and dancing (counting while dancing), marching also helps. I've been both a dancer and a musician, for me its always been about breaking things down to the smallest rhythm that I can, as well as being able to count on top of that, as well as anticipate. Good luck!
posted by lullu73 at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2014

Play drums in a Guitar Hero band. You'll be getting real-time feedback on accurate your rhythm is.
posted by aimedwander at 11:44 AM on June 10, 2014

Do you mean you can't keep the beat in a waltz (or other easy, macro things), or like, you can't beat 4 in one hand and 5 in the other?

If the former, dance classes will probably help, but you want a really good teacher who can explain how to closely listen and apply to movement.

if the latter, get a Dr. Beat and listen to that.

if it's actually a matter of being slow / erroneous at reading notated rhythms, well, study those. Build the linkage between the visual and the kinesthetic. I give this as a possibility because it's my problem, but also because being late on reading a rhythm makes you rush, be wrong more often than not, and also late.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:26 PM on June 10, 2014

I have no rhythm and hate dancing (pretty bad coordination and I think the concept of flailing body parts to and fro is kind of silly, personally...and people who say "just feel the rhythm!" don't seem to get that that is part of the whole bad rhythm thing.) so I did it the nerdy way.

I improved by just playing Stepmania with a keyboard. I could do it with a "dance pad" attached to my computer sure and get some exercise out of it, but keyboard is good enough. It TELLS you when the beat is, and at that point, you practice until it becomes muscle memory. Once it becomes muscle memory for a variety of different songs, it goes into that part of your brain where you don't need to think about it anymore, like all the little things that go into riding a bike.
posted by aggyface at 12:50 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I teach dance, here's the exercises we use to help people with no rhythm, in layers of increasing difficulty.

Find a song with a basic 4/4 rhythm and a strong beat (change songs everytime!).
Tap the count of 1 every bar. Achieve mastery.
Tap the counts of 1 & 3 every bar. Achieve mastery.
Tap the counts of 2 & 4 every bar. Achieve mastery.
Repeat steps above but now alternate hands each time you tap. Achieve mastery.

Then start picking rhythms of individual instruments to tap out. The piano. The base. The melody. Good songs I use for these are VERY popular songs, the kind that play in your head instantly once mentioned. The Final Countdown, Billie Jean, Copacabana, cheesy stuff, 80s stuff. Achieve mastery.

Start doing the above exercises with the hand/body coordinated movements that your instruments required. Yes, right from the beginning, all over again. Patience, my friend. Achieve mastery.

What you are after is a process, and a skill that requires a combination of muscle memory, improvisation ability, physical accuracy, conversion of brain processes into rhythmic movement, and the hardest - control of your innate natural inclination toward non-rhythmic execution.

These exercises when done correctly, will provide said process, and train your brain and body in incremental layers until you do manage to coordinate all of the above.

The thing is, you can do all the above exercises and not achieve what you want, because people are notoriously bad at identifying and self-analysing their ability to do them correctly. So my advice is find someone with impeccable rhythm and ask them to coach you in the above. It will take time, but it will work.
posted by shazzam! at 2:30 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

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