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"New Views on Groove"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, October 2001.

The concept of "groove" in music is a subtle and slippery one, with many different personal and cultural perspectives. It's a difficult subject to discuss precisely, and yet we recognize immediately, in an almost physical way, whether a given musical performance grooves or not. It's what makes us tap our feet, sway our hips, bob our heads, what makes us want to dance, what grabs us somewhere inside and moves us.

Groove goes beyond whether or not you "play the notes at the right time," whether you rush or drag the tempo. These are important considerations, obviously, but they don't tell the whole story. If they did, then metronomes and drum machines would be the grooviest things around. They're not.

Groove begins with the beat, with the pulse. Most people experience the pulse as a series of discrete "blips," much like the ticks of a metronome or a clock. There's something cold and disjointed about this image, each beat conceived as a short, sharp, discrete event completely isolated from its neighbors.

A more "substantial" image for the pulse is that of a mound or hill. That is, instead of being sharply defined like a pole, imagine that the pulse has a raised, rounded shape, and actually takes up a little real estate. Indeed, some musicians speak of the beat as having a "front side" and a "back side." Playing on one side or the other creates an exciting tension: if you play on the front side, the music feels urgent and edgy, as though it were about to speed up; if you play on the back side, the groove feels earthier and heavier, as though it were about to slow down.

Try it for yourself. Keep a steady pulse and explore what it means to play on the "leading edge" (front side) of the beat, then on the "trailing edge" (back side). It takes time to master, but when you get the hang of it, you realize that you can learn forward or pull back on the pulse without necessarily rushing or dragging the tempo itself.

A great example of playing on the back side is Charlie Watts' drumming on the classic Rolling Stones song, "Wild Horses." Another is the slow, hypnotic groove on Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic." As for playing on the front side, you often hear it in high-energy music like bebop, Celtic, and faster old-time, where the musicians will push at the pulse to drive the music forward. But again, the trick is to push forward or pull back without actually changing the tempo.

Let's look now at all that "empty space" between the pulses. Imagine that this space isn't really empty at all. Imagine that each pulse fills this space like a breath, with a sustained flow of musical energy that only subsides to make way for the next pulse. With this image, we begin to see that it's not just the "tick" of the metronome that matters but also the swing of its pendulum.

This sensation of the pulse taking up space, of having a duration and a shape, can have a profound effect on how you experience not only the beat, but the notes as well. Because the groove depends as much on how long the notes last as it does on when they start. Many musicians neglect to give notes their full due, and even when their notes are well-placed, the music still doesn't groove. A note must be allowed to breathe, to blossom, to last for its full value.

Because these musicians can't feel the expansiveness of the pulse, they can't trust that there's enough time to give the notes and rests enough room. It takes a subtle (and perhaps counter-intuitive) shift in perception, but once you understand that the duration of the notes is every bit as important as the placement, your ability to groove often improves dramatically.

Here's another small and equally profound perceptual shift that has to do with syncopation. People often have trouble playing rhythms with off-beat accents, i.e. an accented note that falls on the "and" between two beats. They commonly play these notes early, rushing them because they're anxious that they'll let too much time go by and end up playing them late.

One of the ways you can do a little mental jujitsu on this problem is to reverse the way in which you perceive an off-beat. Rather than thinking of the off-beat as something that happens after a certain beat, think of it instead as happening before the next beat, and even as "part of" that beat. For example, if you're hitting a note on the "and of 1," visualize it instead as "the and before 2." This is especially helpful in swing and jazz contexts, where the off-beats are actually based on triplets, which means that each off-beat is actually closer to the beat that comes after it than it is to the beat that comes before.

In fact, it's often helpful to visualize an off-beat accent as the next beat coming a little bit early. In other words, if you're hitting an accent on the "and of 1," try thinking of it as beat 2 being played ahead of time. That's really the intent and effect of many syncopated rhythms, to make us feel as though we're being propelled forward because the music is rushing up to meet us.

SIDE NOTE: In many African-influenced styles, this anticipation of upcoming beats can become so prominent that it creates the temporary, dizzying sensation that the meter (the "1, 2, 3, 4" of things) has completely shifted. A prime example is accenting beat 4 strongly enough that it begins to assume the role of beat 1. This effect is particularly exciting in Afro-Cuban and other Latin styles. In early New Orleans jazz, it was known as the "big four." It also shows up in contemporary African and Caribbean music.

Listen to great musicians in any genre and you realize how organic and fluid their relationship to time really is. It's not a rigid, unwavering grid of metronome ticks, but a living, breathing force that animates every note. See if these images bring out that quality in your own playing. Enjoy!

Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).