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Rhythm for Songwriters


Lee Knight

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Now this... is a songwriting topic!

 

The main thing I see all of us lacking, is so seldom mentioned. Good rhythm skills. Not rhythm guitar, not groove, not "I've Got Rhythm!" but...

 

...Subdivision.

 

Do what? Let's say we're checking out a rough demo recording of one of our compatriots here, let's make it... me! And I'm singing away and playing live to vid and all is well and you're thinking, "That Lee, he sure knows a thing or two about a thing or tw...

 

...wait, he's tripping down the stairs..."

 

When I get to that bit of the lyric I wasn't sure about, too many syllables maybe?... I stumble and cram them in and... ick. It all falls apart and sounds hack.

 

Lately I'm seeing guys mention the error of too many syllables. Personally, I think it is lack of rhythm skills more than lack of paring down syllables. So what do you do?

 

Work at it. How? By getting this book and a metronome.

 

Modern-Reading-Text-in-4-4-9780769233772

 

But I can't read music! This book you can. Picture tapping out 1, 2, 3, 4 to a metronome. Then try 1, 2, rest, 4. Can you do that? You can read this book.

 

This is the book I used when back in '83 I was informed by my drummer/best friend I would be dropped form the band that was just signed to MCA if I didn't get my "meter" together. That's what we called it back then, us hip musos: Meter.

 

This is the bookj I still use today to hone my rhythm and get me firing on all cylinders. Good rhythm feels really good. It's like sex.

 

Anyway, if you recognize what I'm talking about and have thought either you were born with it or not, or you just wondered what to do about it...

 

http://www.amazon.com/Modern-Reading-Text-All-Instruments/dp/0769233775

 

 

Of course, I highly doubt there will be a mad rush to get your copy and a metronome, but if you do, and you'd like some input as to how to proceed, ask away.

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One of the best things that ever happened to my sense and knowledge of rhythm was to start sequencing drum machines in a graphical environment where you could see how your 'rhythmic events' fall out onto the grid.

 

In the past, I've certainly been guilty or rhythm-cramming, sneaking 'extra' subdivisions into music in such a way as to all but defy the ability to assign any sort of rhythmic logic to the results.

 

But one thing I've found when I've gone to the trouble of going to the mats on a given phrase is that, with effort, you can usually find a 'valid' rhythm that makes sense -- and may not even sound too bad. It's not always easy -- and since I play by ear and not by any sort of mental grid, it can sometimes be tough for me to learn/remember the trick rhythms some ungainly syllable-fug requires. But it can usually be done without bending the time-space continuum to the breaking point.

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^ exactly. What's interesting about putting just a little time into the book above, is you gain a sense of that "mental grid". You start to own it. You start to be able to remember how you made it work. You start to be able to make it work on the fly. Like Ray Charles ad libbing and you wonder, how the hell does he even make it work?

 

It's just getting comfortable with subdivisions. And I'll say it again, or maybe I didn't say it before, playing just 5 minutes of that book with a metronome if first of all... FUN. And second, empowering.

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One of the best things that ever happened to my sense and knowledge of rhythm was to start sequencing drum machines in a graphical environment where you could see how your 'rhythmic events' fall out onto the grid.


In the past, I've
certainly
been guilty or rhythm-cramming, sneaking 'extra' subdivisions into music in such a way as to all but defy the ability to assign any sort of rhythmic logic to the results.


But one thing I've found when I've gone to the trouble of going to the mats on a given phrase is that, with effort, you can usually find a 'valid' rhythm that makes sense -- and
may
not even sound too bad. It's not always easy -- and since I play by ear and not by any sort of mental grid, it can sometimes be tough for me to learn/remember the trick rhythms some ungainly syllable-fug requires. But it
can
usually be done without bending the time-space continuum to the breaking point.

 

 

I agree with this. Oddly, I have little trouble transcribing the rhythm of guitar lines that I play (maybe because they're seldom very rhythmically complex), but drum parts are another story all together. Another technique that I see writers like Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler and others use is to add extra measures in a different time signature to make things work. Like an extra measure of 2/4 in a 4/4 composition provides a few more beats to smooth the lyric. I have also found a metronome to be my friend for the past number of years. I will have to look into this book.

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But I can't read music! This book you can. Picture tapping out 1, 2, 3, 4 to a metronome. Then try 1, 2, rest, 4. Can you do that? You can read this book.

 

I checked the "Look Inside" link and :cry:

 

I accept that I need to work on my meter (and the more I work on my meter the more I realize that I need to work on my meter). But without audio examples I am going to struggle. A lot.

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My early attempts at recording my songs were dismally arrhythmic. I could hold a good rhythm live but when it came time to capture.....

 

...until I discoverd the click track (metronome) the click became my beacon in the night, allowing me to wander all over (you know how I wander) and still come back to the pocket.

 

I do not use a grid, nor do I ever quantize. I think songwriting should be free and natural. But rhythm is so important.

 

After all this time recording with a click I find that I can hold a pretty decent beat now while composing live. Go figure.

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But without audio examples I am going to struggle. A lot.

 

 

Because I've always played by ear, I find anything musical reduced to the printed page, to be incomprehensible. I wish it were otherwise.

The name of a chord is fine, and I have recently come to understand what 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4 mean. But beyond that it's all struggle.

Whereas if I hear it - then away we can go.....

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My early attempts at recording my songs were dismally arrhythmic. I could hold a good rhythm live but when it came time to capture.....


...until I discoverd the click track (metronome) the click became my beacon in the night, allowing me to wander all over (you know how I wander) and still come back to the pocket.


I do not use a grid, nor do I ever quantize. I think songwriting should be free and natural. But rhythm is so important.


After all this time recording with a click I find that I can hold a pretty decent beat now while composing live. Go figure.

The first time I ever used canned drums in a recording (during my brief but memorable two-cassette-ping-pong overdub phase) was a track from the old Drum Drops vinyl series. The track was a ridiculously busy thing. According to the liners, you were expected to cut it apart on tape to find the bits you liked and then edit it back together in a useful way. But I didn't have a reel machine at the time, so I was stuck using the whole track. I recorded a bass, a guitar or two, and some vocals. And a whole lotta hiss.

 

One day, not long after I started taking classes in studio recording at my local JC, I went over to visit a new friend from the recording program. He was a really good drummer and a really good guitar player. He'd been playing music professionally for 15 or 20 years at the time and had a nice little 4 track studio in his garage where his cover band tracked demos and his outsider new wave band (Hot Food to Go, of Dr Dimento "fame") did their singles and later album.

 

I worked up the courage to play my Drum Drops-driven cassette-overdub epic. Several minutes in, under a chaotic, heavily flanged lead guitar freakout, my friend got a funny smile on his face. He looked over at me and said, I really like how you turned the rhythm around, there... making what had been the three beat the one beat... an... uh... interesting effect.

 

:D

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I checked the "Look Inside" link and
:cry:

I accept that I need to work on my meter (and the more I work on my meter the more I realize that I need to work on my meter). But without audio examples I am going to struggle. A lot.

 

No, no, no. Not true. You only play the first page. Or the first exercise. Really. 1/4, 1/4,1/4, 1/4. It starts there. And progresses slowly. But if you never make it off the first page, you're fine. You time will start improving. That first page saved me gig way back when.

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Subdivision.

 

 

I'm not sure if you were going for this, but that tune is a perfect example. Easily one of my top 10 favorite rhythmic openings.

 

[video=youtube;i6haepdKG6Q]

 

I've started writing with random drum beats from AD railing away behind me. Totally changes my perspective and allows me to lean less on the guitar than I usually do otherwise. Liberating.

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As further indication that Lee Knight is either prescient or a bellweather - perhaps both - Jon Chapell has a little article in today's HC Confidential about metronome apps for smart phones. He even mentions one called Subdivide Metronome that helps with, you guessed it, rhythmic subdivisions.

It looks pretty cool, but I have to upgrade my phone before I can get it.

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I'm not sure if you were going for this, but that tune is a perfect example. Easily one of my top 10 favorite rhythmic openings.

 

 

Good example of alternating meter, Oswlek. Thanks for posting.

 

What's going on in the intro is that it's alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4. with an anticipation on beat 4-1/2 of the 4/4 bar that ties over into the 3/4 bar. All three beats of the 3/4 bar are syncopated; that is, you don't hear beats 1, 2, or 3. They're tied through from the 8th note before.

 

If you're new to shifting meters, try counting along with this intro. Use your four fingers (I use my right hand) going index, middle, ring, pinky for the 4/4 bar, and then start over but go index, middle, ring, and then start over again. You'll see that by alternating 4 fingers and 3 fingers that you'll be in time with the intro. Don't get thrown by the syncopations (which always happen on beat 4-1/2 of the 4/4 bar and carry through the 3/4 bar).

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As further indication that Lee Knight is either prescient or a bellweather - perhaps both - Jon Chapell has a little article in today's HC Confidential about metronome apps for smart phones. He even mentions one called Subdivide Metronome that helps with, you guessed it, rhythmic subdivisions.

It looks pretty cool, but I have to upgrade my phone before I can get it.

 

 

One of my favorite aspects of this program is that it doesn't just include subdivisions, but 6 different clave (CLAH-vay) schemes. A clave is a two-bar syncopated figure that much Latin music is based on. Look closely at the screen shot of the Subdivide Metronome, and you'll see--among the standard subdivision choices of 8th, 16th, and triplets--an icon of two crossed rosewood clave sticks. Pretty cool!

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Good example of alternating meter, Oswlek. Thanks for posting.


What's going on in the intro is that it's alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4. with an anticipation on beat 4-1/2 of the 4/4 bar that ties over into the 3/4 bar. All three beats of the 3/4 bar are syncopated; that is, you don't hear beats 1, 2, or 3. They're tied through from the 8th note before.


If you're new to shifting meters, try counting along with this intro. Use your four fingers (I use my right hand) going index, middle, ring, pinky for the 4/4 bar, and then start over but go index, middle, ring, and then start over again. You'll see that by alternating 4 fingers and 3 fingers that you'll be in time with the intro. Don't get thrown by the syncopations (which always happen on beat 4-1/2 of the 4/4 bar and carry through the 3/4 bar).

 

:)

 

It's this kind of analysis that can really aid a songwriter. And not just so he or she can bust out and show off some impressive mixed meter plumage! But, more to the case, so we don't fumble through those multi-syllabled passages that we know need to be subdivided to fit but really don't know how. Of maybe just an anticipated 8th note to break up our hopelessly vanilla stream of on-the-beat, lukewarm rhythm "attack".

 

But you can't... when you can't.

 

But more important to understand is, it's not a black art. It's not some "for those guys who read" and not you. It's as simple... and as complicated as getting that book above, and an app like above care of Mr. Chappell, or a simple metronome, and trying the first exercise. Because it assumes you don't read music. Really.

 

The reason I do love Bellson's book is because everybody who followed my advice and bought and worked it have always said, "I didn't think I'd be able but... I can". All you need is the first page. OF course I'm on my 5th copy maybe, and ventured deep into it. But you certainly don't have to, to get the benefit.

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A well written set of lyrics has it's own meter that jumps out at you when you read them.

Jingle Bells for example...

 

 

I consider Let In Snow to be good lyrics. And yet, the rhythm is pretty tricky. Easy when you hear it, but as a songwriter with limited rhythmic acumen, well... that could could've been a disaster. Just consider the bit at the top of the chorus,

 

Let it... snow

 

The "let it" bit. 1/8th note triplets. Not particularly obvious until you hear it back.

 

 

A well written set of lyrics has it's own meter

 

 

^ so yes and no.

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