web analytics

Saved by Syncopation

May 3rd, 2013

Keep Your Knees Bent

I’m on fire today. Two whole blog pieces.

I thought I’d write a little about my music studies.

I haven’t written any music in a while. I’ve become obsessed with learning to read rhythms, as I’ve said earlier. Quarter-note triplets have been driving me nuts. They’re so slow, it’s hard to get a feel for them. I made a lot of progress with an exercise my teacher taught me. You beat out “Carol of the Bells” with two hands. One hand plays quarter-notes, and the other plays quarter-note-triplets. You switch hands. You use your feet. Eventually, you start to hear both rhythms, and that helps.

That was useful, but I went beyond that. I made a Youtube video with a soundtrack featuring this rhythm. I made the triplets higher in pitch than the quarter notes. When you play the rhythm with your hands, the pitches are the same, so the rhythms are not as distinct.

My Musition software is trying to push me to a new level full of 32nd notes, but my teacher told me to forget it. It’s more important to get a grip on 16th notes and rhythm figures made of them.

A rhythm figure is a four-beat fragment of music which takes up the space of one quarter note. You can have a quarter note, or you can have a mixture of eighth notes, rests, and sixteenth notes. There are about 15 of these things, because the combinations are limited. When you can read these fluently, you will understand written music a lot better.

He has me studying the slash notation versions of these things. Slash notation consists of rhythm figures with slashes and X’s instead of note heads. Each 16th note is a strum. A slash is a fretted string or chord. An X is a deadened string or chord. It’s musical shorthand. Practicing reading these things will get common rhythms into your head. I was supposed to start doing this yesterday, but I was really busy, and I discovered something very distracting: syncopation.

As you may know, “syncopation” refers to unusual rhythms. It means rhythms a classically trained ear won’t expect. We are used to hearing waltz timing and 4/4, with the emphasis on the first beat, but you can also emphasize any other beat. A jazz musician named Buddy Bolden is famous for popularizing “Big Four” rhythm, which emphasizes the second and fourth beats in 4/4 time. I think. Anyway, there is a lot of syncopation in American popular music. It’s mesmerizing, because it teases your ear. It makes you wait for things instead of getting them when you expect them. It’s hard to describe, but if you listen to some syncopated music, you’ll see what I mean.

My software will provide syncopated exercises, but I tried it a while back, and I was hopeless, so I dropped it. This week I decided to try it again, leaving out the quarter-note triplets. I’m using 4/4 time, but you can do it with other timings, like 3/4 and 2/4. If you can do 4/4, you can do the others. You don’t have to exhaust the possibilities.

This stuff is amazing. It sounds like real music. Compared to non-syncopated rhythm, straight timing (my term) sounds like really bad marching band music, or Muzak. It sounds primitive and simple. I’m no expert, but my experience so far suggests that studying syncopated rhythms is about a thousand times as effective as studying straight timing. It keeps you off your balance. It familiarizes you with more fragments of rhythmic “vocabulary.” Studying straight timing is like studying formal French or Spanish. It will not prepare you to deal with real people using real rhythms. Just as a student of French will be hopelessly confused when he hears slang, a person who studies straight timing will be helpless when those weird beats show up. And they don’t just show up in jazz and the blues. They pop up in other types of music, even though music teachers don’t focus on them.

05 03 13 musition syncopated rhythm exercise

This is probably why you can sight-read the crap in the books your teacher supplies, but you can’t get anywhere with the music you want to play. That’s my suspicion.

So now I can’t quit doing these exercises. They make me hear music in my head. Even though they have no pitches, I hear the beats in my head, and pitches sort of show up on their own, because the beats imply them. I think this is the way to go.

I’ve reached the point where I can imagine rhythm measures in my head and hear them. That’s very nice. If I can get this under control, pitch and harmony should follow. Then I’ll be Mozart.

Well, maybe not. But I won’t be totally lost. I’ll be musically literate. This should open the door to real sight-reading, which should open the door to faster improvement.

Stumble it!  Save This Page

One Response to “Saved by Syncopation”

  1. Bradford M. Kleemann Says:

    Do you mean like this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNQXQKflJNA