In this first lesson from ‘Open Chords Made Easy’, we are going to explore what rhythm is.
If the concept of rhythm is at all confusing to you, you’ve come to the right place. This section is a bit lengthy, but I have written it using very simple concepts and without relying on standard music notation. This is not to dumb it down at all. I have kept it simple for two reasons; Firstly, to demonstrate that rhythm is a simple and instinctive concept. If you can count, you can understand rhythm. If you have ever clapped along to a song, danced, or tapped your foot, you intuitively understand rhythm. Secondly, using this system to explain how rhythm works also makes the explanation of strumming a logical extension.
Rhythm is easy. Strumming is easy. But understanding both requires knowing a little bit of theory. Don’t worry, if music theory is ‘not your thing’, it won’t matter. This guide is written in a way that is very easy to grasp, no matter what level of music theory you posses.
The most basic expression of rhythm is a pulse, or a beat. A pulse is simply what it implies, like the pulse of a heart. Let’s do an exercise. Clap your hands at a slow but steady pace, while trying to keep the time between each clap the same. This is a ‘pulse’, or a basic ‘beat’. You can hear it, but more importantly, you should be able to ‘feel’ it. It should feel like something is about to happen. Like you’ve just initiated a song that is about to kick into gear. Like you have a sudden inclination to dance, or at least move to the ‘beat’. This is what a pulse is. It is fundamental to more than 99% of the music that you will ever hear. The speed of the beat is measured in Beats Per Minute (or ‘BPM’). Literally, this is a measurement of how many beats occur within a minute. While different songs have different tempos (BPMs), most songs don’t change tempo from start to finish. Here is an example of a pulse, using claps at 80bpm:
Now that we know what a beat (pulse) is, we need to understand meter. In music, beats are organized into groups. The meter is also known as the time signature. In more than 90% of music you hear, the beats are organized into groups of four. This is called 4/4. It is also known as ‘Common Time’. This reoccurring group of four beats provides a very important sense of momentum and symmetry. Here’s your next task: Count out loud the following:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – (etc.)
It should sound something like this:
Just like the exercise before, make sure that the distance between each count is the same (i.e. keep the tempo even). You can even clap your hands with every count, just to maintain the continuity of the previous exercise. This should, to varying degrees, seem familiar. Most people have heard and imitated the rhythmic chant of “1 – 2 – 3 – 4” in countless (no pun intended) songs. Keep doing the exercise. You should ‘feel’ a certain sense of momentum and symmetry that comes with grouping these beats into four.
Why four? Why is four so common and so important to music as we know it? I’m not really sure. It just feels good. There’s probably a reason, but it really doesn’t matter. Each cycle of four, is called a ‘bar’ of music. Music notation is arranged in bars. It is a logical way to arrange a piece music into smaller sections. If you want, you can experiment with other time signatures. Count to three repetitively in a similar fashion. This is the time signature of 3/4, the time signature used for waltzes. It feels different. While it is relatively common, it is by no means as common as the time signature of 4/4. Try doing the same for groups of five. This should feel a little bit strange, or odd. But don’t get too carried away just yet. For now, we will only be dealing with 4/4. Why? Because If you can master rhythms that are in 4/4, moving to another time signature is a pretty simple process. Trying to master different time signatures while learning about rhythm and strumming is unnecessary. You have my permission to pretend that 4/4 is the only time signature that has ever existed (for now).
Now we are going to get into the fun stuff. Rhythm. We’ve established a pulse and organized each beat into infectious groups of four. The backbone of our hypothetical piece of music is well set. It is necessary to touch on an important point here though. While in our exercises so far, we have expressed the beat and meter by clapping and counting out loud, it is important to understand that the beat and meter continue throughout a song, even when we don’t express them audibly. The beat and meter are the ‘backbone’ of any song. They repeat constantly from start to finish. Even when we do not express the beat and meter (by clapping or counting out loud, for example), they still churn along underneath. Think of it like a blank canvass that can be used to produce music. Do demonstrate this point, another exercise is in order. Let’s do the exercise that we did before. Count out loud (“1, 2, 3, 4”) repetitively. Only this time, clap your hands with every beat except for the 4th. Still count out loud on the 4th beat but don’t clap.
This should give you a sense of the beat continuing, but the musical phrase (in this case, the claps) changing over the top. To emphasize this point even more, do the exact same exercise again, but this time don’t count out loud, instead count only in your head.
This is actually a superior example, because it demonstrates (by counting in your head and not out loud) that the underlying beat and meter keep going even when they are not being played or heard. This is really the whole principle behind rhythm and its relationship to the beat. The beat keeps going (perhaps silently, perhaps not), and we use it as a springboard for playing rhythms, by clapping, strumming, singing, or any other form of musical expression.
Let’s do some more exercises. This time, we’re going to use some visuals. Below is a bar of music, containing 4 beats (familiar stuff by now, right?). This is really just an exercise we’ve already done. Count out loud in cycles of 4 and clap on every beat.
For the next exercise, we’re going to count repetitively out loud to 4, but we are not going to clap on the grey number. Therefor, in the following exercise, we will only be clapping on the 1, 2 and 4. BUT, we must count for every number, even the 3, which does not get a clap assigned to it.
The next exercises are the same deal. Always count every beat, but only clap on the bold numbers, not the grey ones. The exercises will be played four times in each of the audio files.
By now you should have grasped the general concept of rhythm. You are expressing different rhythms (by clapping) while using the beat and meter as your reference points. A good idea is to repeat the exercises, but count in your head (not out loud) while clapping the rhythms. This will allow you to really hear the rhythm of the claps. Remember, don’t just play each exercise once. Repeat them over and over again without a break in between, so as to really get a sense of the rhythm becoming established.
You should by now have a basic understanding of what a beat is, and how it is used to create basic rhythms. If you want to make the above exercises more interesting, go through each of them again, but this time, instead of using claps to express each rhythm, use your guitar. Stick to one note only, if you want. Count out loud (or silently, but count!) and play each rhythm by playing a note on the guitar.
Subdividing – The Holy Grail of Rhythm
So far, you have established a beat and used it as a springboard for expressing rhythms. That is what rhythm is in a nutshell. However, we need to be able to do one more very important thing – Subdivide. What are we subdividing? The beat, of course! Up until now, we have used each of the four beats as a possible opportunity for doing something (playing a note, or clapping etc.). That gives us four possible opportunities in each bar. When we subdivide the beat, we are creating more opportunities for playing a note (or strumming a chord, or clapping etc.) We can subdivide each beat into two, or three, or four. By doing so, we give ourselves more points to play something. The important thing is that the subdivisions have to be divided evenly.
Even though I said we can divide the beat by almost any number, in this book we will only be subdividing beats into two. In reality, other subdivisions are used frequently in music (subdivisions of four are used frequently, for example), but if you can confidently produce rhythms by subdividing each beat into two, moving onto other subdivisions is a pretty simple process.
The easiest way to divide a beat into two, is to say the word “and” in between each count. The important thing is to know that the numbers (1, 2, 3, 4) should not be displaced or moved at all. All that is happening is that another word is being inserted in between them. As a result, it can seem at first like the tempo has increased because we are now saying two things in the space of where we were before saying one thing. But keep in mind that the tempo does not change by subdividing, because we are not changing the lengths between the beats (the ‘1’s, ‘2’s etc.), we are just putting things in between.
Try saying it out loud. We will do some more clapping exercises in a moment, but for now, practice continually counting to 4, using “and” to subdivide each beat, like the following:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 etc.
Now let’s play some rhythms using the subdivisions. The principles we used in our original exercises don’t change, which makes the following group of exercises an easy extension. We are now just inserting an ‘and’ in between each beat, which gives us more possible points that we can play something on.
Remember before when I said that the beat churns along even when we don’t audibly express it? The same thing applies to the subdivisions that we are using. Here are some exercises using subdivisions. The same rules apply as before:
- Count out loud for every number or ‘and’, even if they are greyed out.
- Clap on every bold number (or ‘and’) but not the grey ones.
- Make sure you are able to repeat (or ‘loop’) every rhythm to really get a feelfor how it sounds and feels.
- Like before, once you become confident, try clapping the rhythms andcounting silently.
- Try varying the speed (tempo). You should always try to maintain an eventempo, so if you want to experiment with a faster or slower tempo, you should stop the exercise, change the tempo and start the exercise again (rather than changing it mid exercise).
As you can see (and hear), there are now a lot more possible combinations. All of the above examples have been one-bar examples. In reality though, rhythms often change from bar to bar, so it’s good to practice rhythms that extend over (for example) two bars. Keep in mind that a two bar rhythm is really just a combination of two one-bar rhythms. Here are some two-bar examples (a bit harder). The exercises aren’t repeated in the audio files.