The European concept of rhythm is normally conceived as being in one meter (a set number of beats per measure) at a time: 2, or 3, or 4, etc. African-based music normally has as the fundamental meter: both 2 and 3 at the same time. This opens the door to syncopation, polyrhythms and musical creativity, which occurs on a more primal level in the brain than harmony. It is acknowledged that Europeans developed harmony further than any other culture; but rhythmically their culture is among the planet's most primitive. Rhythmically speaking, European-based music is like working on a computer with one window open, whereas in African based music there are always two windows open, and you are working in both of them at once ... continuously. The "work" is really simple multiplication and division, all based on 2 and 3. The layers of rhythmic complexity can get dizzying in African-based music, and these ever-changing layers stimulate the mind and body, inspiring the tradition of dance that often accompanies African music.
CULTURAL CONTEXT OF DOWNBEAT AND BACKBEAT
I've observed a fundamental difference between colonizing and colonized cultures in the way the downbeat/backbeat relationship is perceived, and in the priority given to the backbeat in this relationship. Put simply, marching (colonizing) cultures see the downbeat as something to follow, and the "marched-upon" (colonized) cultures see the downbeat as something to react to, using the backbeat. This is not at all a racial issue of black and white, as Japan and its colony Okinawa also bear out this theory. It is simply that the function of the downbeat in marching and organizing troops is critical. In "backbeat" cultures, dancing is usually far more important than marching, and most observers will find that dancing to the backbeat is far more sensual than marching along to the downbeat.
For the musician playing, reacting as opposed to following the beat feels quite different physiologically. Playing reactively means that the beat becomes something to jump away from. For example, in blues music, all of the important events - the basic groove, the timing of vocal entrances, the starting and ending points of musical riffs - all begin on an "And." The beat itself is constantly implied, but blues players avoid placing any important event on the beat. Even non-musicians will hear something humorously "wrong" if a blues line is sung beginning on the downbeat.
The music of the Indian Ocean islands seems to be the strongest "reactive" style of rhythm in the world, because the accented "And" at 33% is so close to the quietly played downbeat. The "loud thing" happens in an unexpected place, and on initial exposure to this music, the untrained ear wrongly perceives this accent as the downbeat. Learning to hear it correctly actually causes a perceptible physiological change in the body.
The first simple rhythm every musician should learn is the triplet (sets of three) played with alternating hands. This involves setting your internal clock to 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3, while your hands play right-left-right-left, etc. If you don't support the internal count by accenting every 1, then the external stimulus will sound like 1 2 1 2 1 2. Therefore, the accented 1 will necessarily change sides every time 1 occurs.
The goal of the following exercises is to strengthen your sense of the internal stimulus clock (which is counting 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3), by challenging it with increasingly stronger external stimuli (in this case, 1 2 1 2 1 2). To strengthen your internal "resolve," you can increase the external stimulus of 1 2 1 2 1 2 incrementally as follows: First, play triplets with alternating hands on your legs. Next, play each hand on two different sounding surfaces, for example the leg and the chest. This boosts the external 1 2 1 2 1 2 sound, causing you to need increased "resolve" that the real beats are 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3. The next step would be to "play" one of the hands in the air, silently, again effectively increasing the external stimulus and driving you to be stronger still. Finally, alternate one hand and one foot to further boost the external stimulus and further strengthen the internal count.
To review these steps:
1. Count and maintain the internal clock of 1 2 3 1 2 3, etc. ALWAYS
2. Then play this triplet rhythm with both hands always alternating on LEGS
3. Play same movement & pattern but with one hand on LEG, and one on CHEST
4. Play same movement & pattern but with one hand SILENT playing in the air
5. Play same pattern using one HAND and one FOOT
All of this will quickly make any musician much stronger rhythmically.
Learning a little bit about playing polyrhythms will enhance musical perception and increase musical coordination for any musician playing any instrument. The basic polyrhythms are easy to learn, when understood conceptually. Simply put, a polyrhythm is two (or more) different meters at the same time, i.e. 2 and 3 both occupying the same length of time. In the case of 2 and 3, the most basic polyrhythm, the common multiple, 6, is the basis for understanding the pattern. However, immediately after hearing the sound of the simple pattern, it will no longer be necessary to count.
In order to play 2 against 3 with the hands, the "3" hand will play 1 2 3 4 5 6, and the "2" hand will play 1 2 3 4 5 6. Superimposing the two patterns yields the following:
Begin by counting all six beats as you play, saying the played notes of 1, 3, 4, 5 LOUDER than the 2 and 6 as "1 2 3 4 5 6. Note that when playing the pattern, the "2" and the "6" pulses are silent. Using the cadence of spoken word to illustrate this effect, it is: "BOTH, rest, right, left, right, rest" Assign equal value to rests and struck notes. Another way to count and feel it is "One two and 3."
Left-handed people often find it easier to play "BOTH, rest, left, right, left, rest." However, it is beneficial to train yourself both ways.
The next step in increasing coordination would be to begin separating the sounds and body parts, to emphasize the sonic differences between the "2" and the "3" which, as before, boosts the external stimulus and helps you confirm and strengthen the internal stimulus. The goal would be to be able to walk in 3 while clapping in 2, then walk in 2 while clapping in 3. If you can reach a point where you can do this, or any of the skills above, and hold a conversation, then you will know you have integrated it into your body, and no longer require your intellect to do it.
A higher level of polyrhythm involves placing 3 against 4. The common multiple here is 12, and with a phase of this length, it is easier to use a verbal mnemonic device: "BOTH-left-right-left-right-left." A verbal phrase for this is "PLAY the dog-gone rhyth-m," or:
This 3-against-4 pattern should be practiced with increasing levels of sonic and body-pan contrast, to strengthen the internal clock: start with hands tapping legs (producing the same sound), then move to hands tapping leg and chest, to boost the external stimulus. This procedure, used previously with 2-against-3, of changing body parts to increase the external stimulus' power should be followed, with the only difference being the pattern played. It is important to begin with tapping hands on both legs, which will yield the WHOLE pattern. Separating body parts to contrast the tone reveals the separate elements of this polyrhythm, thus demanding greater awareness of the WHOLE pattern.
DEVELOPMENT OF 6/8 TIME
The waltz meter is 3/4, which is to say three beats per measure. 6/8 meter is a way of expanding 3/4 time, so that a measure of 6 pulses can be felt either as 2-beats or 3-beats per measure. This opens the doors to 2-against-3 syncopation possibilities, and this type of rhythm is employed and enjoyed by many of the world's cultures, for example across Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, and Asia. The player and listener can enjoy a sense of "multitasking" the simple arithmetic involving 2 and 3.
This mentally rich "play" is taken a step further in Madagascar, Réunion, and other Indian Ocean islands. The two-beat feel of the 6/8 time is retained, but the accent is flipped, by displacing it by an eighth note. Thus, the accent that was on 1 and 4, now gets moved to 2 and 5. The chords and measures still start on 1, but the unexpected "loud thing" happens on the 2 and 5. Taken as two triplets (123 123), we see that we have an accent on the 33% "AND."
The time perception of 6/8 can be organized in steps of increasing complexity, from Europe to the Indian Ocean islands.
RHYTHM IN THE WEST
As a guitarist, I've observed that four European traditions have had negative impacts on modern guitar-playing, causing most contemporary guitarists to be quite weak rhythmically. The first tradition is the hierarchical way of organizing groups of musicians, with rhythm delegated to the lower ranks, and "lead" melody considered more important. The second tradition is the focus on notes and scales, considered to be far more important than rhythm. The third is the "sports" attitude, which considers speed to be the primary measure of musical virtuosity. The fourth tradition is attempted standardization of what is considered a "good tone" (timbre) for one's instrument. These four ways of handling music contribute to the fact that most guitarists spend 95% of their time practicing scales and 5% or less practicing groove and timbral changes. Ironically, manipulation of groove and tone provide far greater range of expression and create so much more impact on listeners that rapidly played scales start to seem like a lot of work for little gain.
In every language thus far encountered by the author, people do not say "work music," they say "play music." This is essential for musicians to realize. Using ideas of polyrhythms and timbres is an easy way to get more "play" from the music.
Deep Rhythm Lessontop
© Bob Brozman 2003