Last month (Part 1
we tried some new approaches to reading pitches in music notation;
this time, we'll focus on rhythm. The techniques described work best
if you have at least a little experience with reading music; at the very
least, you should know the basics of rhythmic notation. These techniques
are not meant to replace traditional approaches, but rather to help you
read rhythms more quickly and accurately.
The first technique is simply to read ahead of where you are in the music.
Beginners tend to read one note at a time, their eyes scanning the music
at the same pace as they play it in real time. Learn to separate reading
and playing; that is, once you know what you're supposed to be doing
now, scan ahead to see what comes next. This suggestion may seem obvious,
but many musicians resist doing this, perhaps because they feel they need
to "see what they're doing."
As you learn to scan ahead, you'll find that you're seeing
the music in larger and larger "units." Work your way from smaller
units to larger ones; start with a beat a time, then a half a measure,
then an entire measure at once. When I say, "an entire measure at
once," I don't mean that you'll always know exactly what
you're going to play before you play it (though this will happen),
but you will be far more prepared for what's coming.
Once you can see larger spans of musical time, you may find it useful
to try a technique I call "reading backwards." To illustrate
this approach, let's look at Figure 1.
Where does the eighth note fall rhythmically? If you were reading note
by note, you wouldn't even see the eighth note until you got there,
and the dotted quarter rest might have already confused you. Even if you
could scan ahead, you might be unsure where the eighth note falls.
However, if you think "backwards" for a moment, you know immediately
where it is — it's on the "and-of-4." There's
nothing else it could be, because it's the last eighth note before
the bar line. Similarly, if that note were a quarter note instead, it
would be on beat 4, because there's no "room" for it to
be anything else; if it were a half note, it would be on beat 3.
In Figure 1, we're reading back from a bar line. You can also read
back from another note, a specific beat, or any other landmark that you're
sure of. For example, look at Figure 2.
Now the "questionable" eighth note falls in a different place.
Reading "backwards" again, we know that the half note falls
on beat 3, and therefore the eighth note must fall on the and-of-2.
One very important skill is to be able to feel the pulse in your body
as you play, even if (especially if) the notes you're playing
fall in between the pulses, as with off-beats and syncopation. In these
situations, it can be extremely helpful to make a point of somehow "marking"
the beats you're not playing, so that you can still feel them and
thereby avoid rushing or dragging the tempo. For example, look at Figure 3:
To play this rhythm accurately, it's important that you feel beats
3 and 4; if you don't, chances are that you'll rush the tempo.
Read Figure 3 over and over in a loop, and keep time by tapping your foot,
nodding your head, or swaying your body. On beats 3 and 4, make a point
of exaggerating what you're doing (i.e. stamp louder, nod or sway
farther, or grunt out loud), so that you can feel those beats "hiding"
in the spaces between the notes. If you do this correctly, you will notice
that your playing becomes much steadier and more confident.
This "feeling the silent pulse" approach brings up an important
point about syncopation, which is that it often creates the effect that
we've arrived somewhere earlier than we expected. For example, in
Figure 3, the effect of the offbeat notes is that the music is anticipating
beats 3 and 4 by hitting just ahead of them. It's as if the music
were making a little "joke" on those beats by getting to them
However, this is only an illusion. Even though the music hits before
the beats, the beats themselves occur right on time. In order to play
Figure 3 correctly, you must be absolutely sure where the pulses are,
because the "joke" only works if they don't move, no matter
how syncopated the music is. If you shift the pulses over, suddenly the
structural framework of the music fails, and the "joke" falls
The single most helpful "technique" for improving your skill
at reading rhythm is simply to practice doing it. When you do, forget
pitch for the moment and focus on reading and recognizing rhythmic patterns
as little "modules" in themselves. If you learn to recognize
these modules, reading becomes infinitely easier, because they are simply
reused over and over again in different songs.
It's much like reading English. When you started out, you had to
sound out each new word you encountered, but now the words are all so
familiar you hardly notice them. Music is the same. At first, you must
sound out the rhythms, but soon the patterns become so familiar that they
function much like musical words, and you simply read them grouped together
Give these techniques a try, work on your reading every day, and watch your skills improve. Enjoy!
Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of