There are three elements of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Learning rhythm is sometimes neglected, yet it is the gas of the music engine: It’s what makes your head nod, your body move and makes you want to dance. As a musician, it’s absolutely crucial to have a firm understanding of the basics of rhythm, at the very least. But once you’ve grasped the basics, what next?

Try these techniques and suggestions to hone your sense of rhythm.

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The Benefits of Rhythm Training

The benefits of learning to hear rhythm apply to all musicians, regardless of instrument or music genre. If you play an instrument and are playing with others, an understanding of rhythm will help you “play in the pocket” of the music and keep time.

Music producers can benefit from an understanding of rhythm as well because it will help you to know where to put notes into music notation software such as sequencers and DAWs (digital audio workstation).

Have you ever heard the joke, “How do know when a Soprano is at the door? She forgot her key and doesn’t know when to come in”? Singers, with a little rhythmic training you will know when to come in!

Pay Attention

You can improve your sense of rhythm by paying attention to certain things in music.

Most popular forms of music rely on only a few time signatures, so if you know what they are and how to count them, you will have covered a lot of ground already in learning to hear rhythm. Most pop songs song are in common time – i.e. 4/4 – or alternatively in 6/8. Knowing this should help you to hear the equal divisions of the measure.

Try listening for rhythmic patterns within the measure such as the use of sixteenth notes, triplets and dotted eighth notes. Once you do, try to internalize them.

If you need extra help hearing the pulse, listen to the bass player and drummer as they are the musicians usually responsible for keeping time.

How to Practice Rhythm

The best way to actively practice your rhythmic skills is with a metronome. Since friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3, set your metronome to accentuate the 2 and 4 beats in 4/ 4 time. Try to feel the swing of 6/8 time.

Have a go at tapping out the rhythmic values while you’re listening. If you sing or play an instrument, try singing or playing along.

You might want to try this exercise: Play scales along with the music, starting with quarter notes, then eighth notes, sixteenth notes and so forth and see if you can keep up! Be sure to continue to “feel the pulse” and internalize what you hear in terms of the “groove” and rhythmic patterns.

A truly great way to practice rhythm is to transcribe what you hear as you go along, assuming you have learned music notation.

Listen to music with advanced rhythms

When you’ve mastered the basics it’s time to try your rhythmic ear on more difficult genres of music. Some examples of music that have more complex rhythms are math rock, various forms of ethnic music and jazz fusion.

Math rock is is a popular genre in rock music that is all about musicians experimenting with odd time signatures, such as 5/4 time.

The Indian genres of Hindustani (North Indian) and Carnatic (South Indian) music are some of the most complex in the world. So complex are the rhythms of traditional Indian music that they even created their own independent language called “Konnakol” to study rhythm!

Jazz and forms of jazz fusion play with polyrhythmic ideas – and sometimes have no rhythmic structure at all.

Regardless of your goals as a musician, it is to your benefit to try to learn more about rhythm. As an artist you want to be as much of a pro as possible, and professionals know their craft really well. Learn to focus on the rhythm, and you will gain tremendous flexibility and power in your musical expression.