The philosophy to learning rhythm

Man listening to headphones

Rhythm should be learned by listening (photo credit)

Why is it that so many student musicians have trouble with rhythm? Because rhythm doesn’t get a lot of attention in traditional music education—and when rhythm does come up, it isn’t treated very effectively.

So what are we doing wrong? To explain, I’m going to start with something obvious: music is about listening. It makes sense, then, that most musical concepts are learned with the ears.

When you’re learning to play with a good tone, you do follow the technical advice of your teacher, yes—but you have to listen to your instrument in order to actually improve the sound. When you’re learning to play in tune, you get better by listening to each note and comparing it to those around it.

With scales, it’s about memorizing patterns of sound and programming them into your “muscle memory” so you can play them without thinking. Whatever it is that you’re trying to improve, the goal is to be able to play your instrument without focusing on the nitty gritty details, to be able to do it almost automatically.

Rhythm should be learned by ear

Why, then, don’t we use the same approach with rhythm? For some reason, rhythm studies focus on complicated mathematical gymnastics that students are supposed to do in their minds: “1-ee-and-ah, 2-ee-and-ah, 3-ee-and-ah…” I challenge you to find a single professional musician who counts that way through every bar of every piece of music. The “all counting, all the time” approach is not very useful, and it doesn’t help you to get from “I sort of get how this works” to “I know this so well I could do it in my sleep.”

In most oral music traditions, rhythm is inseparable from the other elements of the music, so it isn’t taught with complicated counting schemes (Indian classical music is the exception). When I studied Cuban music, nobody talked about how syncopated the rhythms were, or how to subdivide the beats. They just played the rhythms over and over and I memorized them, like scales. The rhythms became automatic, and then the music happened on top of the foundation they created—effortlessly, easily, unthinkingly. uses a similar approach: you learn rhythm by hearing it and memorizing how it feels. Rhythms are not explained theoretically, and nonstop counting is discouraged. Instead, you should count only when appropriate, choosing when to focus on rhythmic details and when to play without thinking about rhythm.

Conga player

The syncopations of Cuban music are usually taught without subdividing (photo credit)

Only count when you have to

In, the studies on hockets and additive meter are actually easier to play when you don’t subdivide your counting—it’s better to simply listen to the flow the music. Alternately, some pieces do have a strong sense of traditional meter, and those pieces benefit from a sort of unconscious “half-counting” where you follow the strong beats as you go along. Then there are other pieces that have normal meters, but where the concept of strong/weak beats doesn’t apply. Selective counting comes in handy for those. is stuffed full of syncopations, right from the very first piece, but these rhythms are never called out as anything weird or difficult—because they aren’t. Syncopations are only hard if you make them hard. In reality, they are as easy to play as anything else, as long as you have the right rhythmic “muscle memory” to guide you.

By using, you’ll learn to avoid many of the rhythmic hangups that plague even professional musicians. The method treats rhythm as a core element of music that is no more or less challenging than any other, and it helps you figure out how to choose the right rhythm strategy for the music you want to play. You’ll find that rhythm comes to you much more naturally than it used to, and you’ll have fun in the process!

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