Rhythm is an under-appreciated component of music – and we’re here to put it in the spotlight for improvisation month! Learn all about improvising a rhythm, how to do it, and the musicality benefits it yields.

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In our previous episode, About Improvisation, I introduced the way we approach learning improvisation at Musical U, trying to avoid the big pitfalls of the most common methods which can leave you feeling totally uncreative or having to totally trust a mysterious instinct that sometimes work and sometimes doesn’t.

Our approach is based firmly on developing your musical ear so that you can bring your own musical ideas out into the world through your instrument, and one way we help you learn that is by providing exercises that give you particular constraints to follow and dimensions to explore.

A great example of why that’s helpful is the topic of rhythm in improvisation.

The importance of rhythm

Rhythm is often an under-appreciated aspect of music. We all value the rhythm section of the band and recognise the importance of keeping the beat. But when it comes to creativity and rhythm we often don’t pay enough attention.

I think that comes from the fact that for many musicians the rhythm side of playing by ear comes fairly easy. After a year or two of learning music in the traditional instrument-based way, most people can clap back a rhythm or play the rhythm for a piece they’ve memorised without much trouble. So we kind of take for granted that our rhythmic ear does what it needs to.

But at Musical U we actually have a whole Roadmap and set of modules dedicated to rhythm ear training and that’s because training your ear beyond that “basically good enough” level can have a massive impact on your musicality. Something you’ll often hear from musicians gigging in bands is that what makes the difference between a mediocre player and an excellent one isn’t whether they’re hitting the right notes – it’s whether they’re hitting them precisely and reliably in time or not. Meaning it’s their sense of rhythm that marks them out as a pro-level player.

It’s a subtle one because as a listener we aren’t typically assessing a musician’s rhythm skills in a conscious way. If they play the wrong pitches we’ll notice, and if their rhythm is way off we’ll notice. But the difference between “okay” rhythm and “excellent” rhythm actually hits us in a subliminal way. Our ears detect it and appreciate it, even if we’re not consciously aware of that’s why we’re particularly impressed or disappointed.

And this isn’t just about rhythmic accuracy. It also applies to rhythmic creativity, and that’s where it’s particularly relevant to improvisation. By training your ear to truly understand rhythmic patterns when you hear or play them you empower yourself with a whole palette of creative options quite separate from note pitches or how expressively you play.

Rhythm Improv Practice

So in our Improvising Melody module we actually break it down in a big way. We take rhythm in isolation and spend some time just exploring what improvising rhythm looks like, in the absence of any other improv decisions.

This is something you can try yourself: one of the exercises is to pick a note, just one single note pitch – and challenge yourself to come up with an interesting phrase or solo. If you don’t believe it can be done then you need to go watch Ella Fitzgerald’s “One Note Samba”!

The point of the exercise isn’t that your next solo should be an Ella-inspired single-note masterpiece. It’s that it opens your eyes (and ears!) to what’s possible just with the rhythmic dimension of music. By applying constraints to the note pitches and other aspects of your improv you force yourself to explore all kinds of possibilities purely in rhythm, and you can then take these back to improvising when those constraints are removed. To use the “playground” terminology I mentioned last time we’re essentially setting up a rhythm-only playground that gives you a fun and creative way to develop your ear for the rhythm side of improvisation.

You can add in specific ear training, like we have for understanding syncopation, note subdivisions, the connection to rhythm notation, different world music styles in rhythm and so on, but it all becomes fuel for your creativity in that rhythm playground.

This is also one case where the “vocabulary” approach to learning improvisation can be useful. Try listening to musicians you admire playing a solo and focus your ear in on just the rhythmic aspect of their playing. This is an example of the Active Listening we talked about back on episode 35. Try to clap back their rhythms. Then try using just their rhythms, not their note pitches, for your own improvised lines. If you do this same exercise with less impressive musicians you will quickly notice the impact that rhythmic creativity and accuracy has on the musical effectiveness of an improvisation.

It’s no coincidence that the traditional approaches to music education that best nurture the inner musicality all address rhythm in a big way. Kodály is known for a way of speaking rhythms, something we teach at Musical U too, which helps you really understand rhythmic patterns and subdivisions in a deep way. And as we heard in episode 46 with Jeremy Dittus of the Dalcroze School of the Rockies, the Dalcroze approach has a whole branch called “eurhythmics” which uses body movement to internalise a great sense of rhythm and instinctive connection to rhythmic creativity.

Improvising with Rhythm

Rhythm was something I was keen to talk about early in this series of podcast episodes for Musical U’s Improv Month and it’s something we cover early on in our Improv Roadmap because it is typically massively under-utilised for learning to be a creative and impressive improviser. We all get so caught up in what notes to play we forget that it’s arguably even more important to think about when to play them.

Spending some time on rhythm ear training and experimenting in rhythm improv playgrounds can have a dramatic positive impact on your improvisational freedom and creativity. If you’ve been looking for an easy way to start trying improvising without getting overwhelmed by scales and chords, or you’ve been improvising based on rules and patterns and felt your solos growing repetitive and same-y I would really encourage you to spend some time exploring in depth this under-valued but massively-important dimension of musical improvisation: rhythm.

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