Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rhythm and Form: Can You Feel It? by Dave Isaacs

by Dave Isaacs
musical-staffWhen we think about rhythm and form, it’s easy to think of them as two separate aspects of a song. Specific rhythms and rhythmic “feels” define a song’s character, while form provides the structure, right? This is all true, but there’s a relationship between the two that’s important to recognize.
First let’s talk about rhythm. Human beings – and all nature, really – are naturally rhythmic. We breathe and walk in rhythm. Our hearts beat in time. Rhythm is a cycle at its core, a grouping of beats that repeat again and again. Take a moment to listen to yourself breathe and notice that there’s a natural rhythm to the in and out breaths. You’ll observe the same thing when walking or running: step, lift, step lift, all coordinated in a way we usually don’t even notice.
We are also symmetrical creatures accustomed to pairs and opposites: two eyes, two ears, two legs, and so on. Left and right, night and day. We talk about the “rhythm” of the seasons and cycles in nature. This is all interconnected, and it shapes our approach to music because music is something we feel as much as hear.
Whether you’re stomping out steady counts of four or playing congas in a Latin percussion section (much more involved!), you are producing a repeated cycle of sounds and a rhyhmic pattern that we feel on multiple levels: the strongly accented first count, or as musicians say, “on the one” or the “downbeat”. This is the beginning of the cycle and is easy to feel even if you don’t think you have a good sense of rhythm. Listen closely to the next song you hear and you’ll recognize the cycle by the way your body responds to the beat as well as what your ears hear. Then listen for the next layer, the meter or regular groupings of beats. This is the “one-two-three-four” count you’ll sometimes here when a group starts a song. We would say that the song is “in four” because of this grouping. A waltz is “in three” with a strong accent on the one: ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three. If you’ve ever danced a waltz, this is what makes the motion flow: STEP-turn-lift.
So how does this relate to form? As every songwriter or player knows, most popular music consists of a series of sections – verse, channel, chorus, etc. These sections are often symmetrical, with alternating pairs of phrases that fit into two, four, or eight bar groupings…essentially, this is the way poetic forms match up with musical structure. This is old news to any experienced songwriter. That’s not to say that groupings can’t be uneven – there’s no reason everything has to be “squared up” all the time – but the average listener likes symmetry, and not just it’s because what they’re used to. It’s because symmetry FEELS right: one phrase smoothly answered by another in a way that completes the lyrical and musical idea. When things are uneven, it can feel like trying to ride a three-legged horse. (I have never actually ridden a three-legged horse, but I imagine it wouldn’t be very smooth…or pleasant for the horse).
The big point is that good musicians feel the symmetry and are generally listening for it as they play. When I sit in and play along with people whose material I don’t know, I’m listening for two things: chord structure and form. In a well-constructed song, the form is generally pretty clear, and not because I’m counting bars but because I can feel the end of the section when it reaches that eighth or sixteenth measure. There are other hints too…changes in dynamics (for example, a build into a chorus) or specific patterns that signal a new section…but it’s mostly about feel.
If you don’t feel or hear in this way, learning how is mostly a matter of knowing what to listen for. If you need to count, count. Listen for cycles, recurring patterns, and sequences. If there’s a count-off at the beginning, or a musical equivalent, notice how it sets the pace for the rest of the song. If you’re trying to coordinate playing and singing, or focused strongly on the physical aspects of either, you might be distracting yourself from the underlying pulse. Start to listen for it, and let your body help you. Tap your foot, nod your head, or do a chair dance. Bounce around the room. Remember that rhythm is visceral, so anything your body does in time with the music will help you feel it. Like so many other aspects of music, learning to feel the beat like this is really just a matter of knowing what to pay attention to. So start listening….can you feel it?
Nashville-based Dave Isaacs is a dynamic performer with an electric presence and a craftsman’s touch….a master musician and world-class guitarist of exceptional versatility, taste, and soul. He has released six independent CDs and played countless gigs across the country, from dive bars to festival stages and concert halls.
Dave has built a reputation one of Nashville’s top guitar teachers and maintains a busy private studio on Music Row, helping songwriters and aspiring artists develop and hone their musical skills and artistic identity. He is a regular member of the workshop faculty for the Nashville Songwriters Association’s annual Songposium conference and is an active mentor in NSAI’s Pros On The Road program. In the formal academic realm, Dave holds faculty positions at Tennessee State University and the Art Institute of Tennessee – Nashville. He is a regular contributor to the Nashville Muse, Songwriters E-Tip, and Dream Row online magazines, and the founder and artistic director of TSU’s annual Guitar Summit.
For more, visit his website at
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