Time's Place In Rhythm

time and rhythm

If I asked you to tap out a steady beat on a drum what would the result be. First of all, by ‘steady’ we would assume that to mean equal amounts of time between each tap. So with one hand you would probably just start striking out a beat. You would not likely ask, “What tempo would you like that at?”. You might ask whether it should be generally fast or slow. Quite possibly you might subconsciously or even consciously choose a tempo based on a song or rhythm you may have recently heard. You may even just play at a speed that is just physically comfortable. Playing very fast would require a lot more effort while playing very slow could feel very uncomfortable. But as you can see, at some point we have to consider the issue of speed or tempo.

Just so we can get it out of the way, let’s define tempo. Instead of using the term speed we can just refer to tempo. In the most basic way, tempo can be defined as the number of beats in one minute often seen in abbreviated form as bpm.

Now let’s go back to the beat that is being played at an arbitrary constant rate. We are not really concerned at this point with the specific value of the tempo. We would just like it to be constant. How can we achieve this without any kind of time measuring device. If we look at the scenario briefly mentioned where you were thinking of a song or rhythm, you could just play a steady beat along with the song as it plays in your head. If you play a lot of drums you might be thinking of a common rhythm that you often play. The important point, is that your brain can recall the memory of sounds in the context of time and not just as a time independent sequence of sounds or tones. We seem to have an ‘internal clock’ that allows this process to take place. How this ‘internal clock’ may or may not work is largely unknown, nor how constant it is. For example we could think of our heart as an internal clock but our heart rate can vary hugely depending on a number of factors. The fact that we have depended on various types of clocks for millennia would suggest that any internal brain clock we might possess is not very consistent. In a musical context, if our internal clocks were 100% accurate and reliable you wouldn’t see seasoned professional musicians being counted in by the drummer or band leader before beginning a song.

Getting back to our lone drummer playing their steady beat, it’s time to complicate our situation by adding another drummer. We are going to ask the second drummer to now play the same steady beat as the first drummer. The only reference the second drummer has is what the first drummer is playing. The second drummer will need some time to listen to the first drummer before he starts playing. The second drummer is going to start playing after hearing 8 beats from the first drummer. So after hearing just 8 beats we are asking the second drummer to recall those beats and most importantly the space between them. There is no song or rhythm playing back in the second drummer’s head that he can tap out a steady beat to, just the 8 beats he has just heard in the immediate past. Oh, and the second drummer has to start playing at a point that continues the steady beat without any disruption. So here we have a second drummer recalling the 8 beats a first drummer has played and that will be his ‘song playing back in his head’.

The success the second drummer has in playing along with the first drummer will depend on a number of factors. First let’s look at the beat played by the first drummer. How ‘steady’ was the beat he played. In other words, how consistent was the time spacing between each beat. If we recorded the first drummer using a computer we could actually measure the time between each beat and have a very good assessment of the steadiness of his beat. The steadier the beat, the easier it will be for the second drummer to feel the tempo of the beat. There will always be inconsistencies in the timing of each beat but if they are small enough the space between each beat can be perceived as identical and the second drummer will be able to ‘lock in’ to the tempo of the first drummer.

The mystery we are ultimately trying to solve is how we are able to perceive time in the context of rhythm. When trying to produce a steady beat, one analogy we can look at in everyday life is the act of walking. The combination of muscle movements working with and against the constant force of gravity can produce a steady walking pace. You could argue that time perception does not even come into play in this process. The pace is determined by the amount of energy we are willing to put into the required muscle movements weighed against our desire to reach our destination faster. Once there is an equilibrium between these two factors we can walk at a steady pace. If we take this analogy one step further and look at two people walking together things are suddenly not so simple, and we also want them to walk so that their step rate and overall velocity is exactly the same . One will undoubtedly tend to walk at a faster pace than the other. As one walker tries to walk slower or the other faster, it will begin to introduce inconsistencies into the strides of each walker and the pace will no longer be constant.

So let’s consider the walking analogy as we think about the two drummers. Focusing on the first drummer, there is no physical destination he is attempting to reach as in the walking analogy. His goal is only to achieve the constant pace. As mentioned previously, the tempo which is analogous to the pace of walking, may be based on a rhythm the drummer is consciously thinking of, or subconsciously on something else entirely. It is difficult to discard time perception as we did in the walking analogy and it may even be absolutely necessary to include it as a factor for the drummer whether conscious or subconscious.

When referring to songs or rhythms that someone recalls in their head it is impossible to test the consistency of the tempo they are recalling unless the person is tapping along so we can monitor it. The act of tapping along however could effect the rhythm as it is being experienced internally so our test could not be considered reliable. As I mentioned before we can record the resulting tempo with a computer and determine its steadiness. The ultimate goal is a steady tempo that other drummers can easily drum along with.

We all seem to have an inherent sense of rhythm to some degree but that sense can be developed and improved and it also can take years of practice. If someone finds that their ability to produce a steady tempo needs improvement, how can they go about it? At this point it becomes necessary to introduce the often maligned metronome. In some cases where we have access to recording software we can use a click track or a programmed steady beat from a cowbell or wood block to record along with. While playing along with a metronome we need to be able to recognize whether each sound we play has occurred before or after the sound of the metronome, even if that difference is very small. By also recording what we play we can monitor the consistency of our tempo. When we record what we play we have the benefit of listening while not having to play and can often hear inconsistencies in our playing that we might not perceive while having to concentrate on the act of playing. Once we start to recognize when we are inconsistent we can pick up on it faster during our actual playing. Just by practicing playing a steady beat along with a metronome at various tempos and listening to and analyzing recordings of the results we can improve our ability to produce a consistent steady beat, eventually without the aid of a metronome or click track. By practicing with a metronome we are also improving our ability to listen while we play which is a vital skill when it comes to playing with other musicians.

In the end we would prefer not to have a bunch of drummers playing along to a metronome. The true joy in the drumming experience happens when a group of well practiced drummers find that common pulse within a rhythmic interplay. The steadiness of that underlying pulse can be increased well beyond what a single drummer could produce. Einstein determined that time and space were not separate entities but that they were interconnected. It is hard to imagine a more direct experience of this than through the act of drumming. Rhythm and sound cannot be produced without movement through space. It is also remarkable how the sound of a rhythm itself inspires movement, whether it be through dance or just tapping your foot along with the rhythm. When a group of drummers come together to create rhythm, it is not automatically given that perfect, awe inspiring grooves will be the result. But with a bit of practice and the opportunity to play with experienced drummers, satisfying results can be achieved fairly quickly. But that is just the beginning of the never ending journey through rhythm.

From my own experience, participating in the creation of rhythm can bring us closer to the elusive fabric of time and space than any other pursuit can. And when we experience it as a group, it makes time as real as it can be. A common entity that can be shared in the endless possibilities and variations of rhythm.