Many musicians feel rhythmically challenged, at least at some time, and not just the beginners. It may happen when learning a new rhythm pattern, a polyrhythm, or playing with a metronome or ensemble for the first few times. And some believe they have no sense of rhythm at all.

Is it really true that a person can have no sense of rhythm? Yes, but it’s not nearly as common as many think. There are very few who actually have a neurologic deficit that prevents rhythm skills from sinking in. If because you’ve felt challenged you believe you have no sense of rhythm, you can be doing yourself a disservice; perhaps you’ve just never been taught good methods for developing one.

First, let’s make a distinction between beat, tempo and rhythm. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll reiterate: Beat is the pulse of the piece (you can tap your foot to it) and is present in most music regardless of tempo  –  in other words, “music with a beat” doesn’t just mean it’s fast; it can be any tempo. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece goes. Rhythm is how the beats are accented, which beats are actually played, and whether the beats are divided into smaller parts.

Usually when someone says they’re rhythmically challenged, it really means they’re beat-challenged  –  they cannot follow the pulse of the music. But since beat, rhythm and tempo are interconnected, trouble with one can sometimes lead to trouble with the others. Since “sense of rhythm” is the phrase that is most commonly used even though it really usually means “sense of beat”, for this article I’ll use the common phrase.

We’ve all seen certain toddlers keep time to music perfectly, and others not so much, so it’s easy to assume that a sense of rhythm is innate  –  that either you have it or you don’t. When the ability shows itself so early, having learned it from someone doesn’t seem like a likely explanation. But in fact, if a baby’s parents listened to music  –  and more so if they sang, danced or played music themselves  –  while he or she was in utero, a child is more likely to be born with a pretty good sense of rhythm and/or pitch.  The ear of a fetus is sensitive, and sounds absolutely do penetrate the womb. Moreover, musical frequency can be felt physically, even in the womb. The neural pathways of an unborn child absorb, retain, and learn a great deal of information. Therefore, it is probable that some forms of music-learning occur in utero  –  obviously without effort, of course. Passive learning happens from consistent exposure. My point is that rhythm ability is not just genetic.

As children and adults, there are (as I’ve written in more detail in past blogs) several ways in which people learn, such as aurally, visually, and tactilely, and most are prone to using one way more than the others because it’s easier for them; this varies from person to person. I wonder if those who are primarily visual learners have a harder time with beat and with music in general. I’ve noticed when asking a beat-impaired person to clap along with me to a piece of music, they often watch my hands to try to copy my clapping, rather than listening to it and feeling it. (Perhaps relying primarily on visual learning could also explain why some people can be good music-readers but poor musicians. The actual music isn’t on the paper; just the symbols for it.)

Anyway, let’s look at several kinds of rhythmic dysfunction:

1. Inability to hear a beat in any music: some are aware of their inability to detect or play a beat and some are not. Those who aren’t may seem to think music is about getting all the notes out regardless of when. If, when you’re playing music that is supposed to have a time signature, but you don’t feel a consistent pulse in your playing, these simple exercises may help:

  • Get a stethoscope and listen to year heartbeat. Take your time and see if you can feel it as well. As you listen, count the lub-dubs as “one-two, one-two, one-two”, etc. Notice also the slight space between the groups of two.
  • Then try counting the space between the lub-dubs as a third beat: “one-two-(three)-one-two-(three)”, etc., and notice, when you do this, that the beat is now consistent (assuming you’re at rest and have a healthy heart).
  • Get a metronome and set it to 60. See if you can count the beats as “one-two-three-one-two-three”, etc., without skipping any beats, and then try “one-two-three-four” repeatedly. Keep trying until you can do it easily.
  • When you get pretty good at that, set the metronome to a faster tempo.

If you do these exercises regularly, you may find beat recognition slowly sinking in.

2. Ability to hear a beat but inability to clap or move along with it: Listen to music as much as possible, both as background and while paying attention, and several times a day try clapping along or tapping your toe to the beats you hear. After a few weeks you may find yourself getting more accurate. This constant exposure can work wonders.

3. Ability to clap with but inability to play a beat accurately with others: Very often, lack of ability to play on the beat with others is simply due to not knowing your music well enough.If you’re concentrating so hard on your playing that you can’t attend to what you’re hearing others do, it’s impossible to follow them. It helps to know your pieces so well that you don’t have to think much about your own playing, so you can listen to the others.

4. Ability to play along with others accurately but inability to do it solo: This is also a practice issue. To get plenty of practice with the benefit of the influence of the group, record the group and play along with the recording until you know the piece so well you can easily do it solo as well.

5.  Ability to count a time signature or rhythm when not playing, but inability to do it while playing: This is often a concentration issue. It’s hard at first to concentrate on many things at once, but the ability to do so develops the more you practice and play. Musicians learn to have what I call a “split brain”  –  they learn to give equal attention to the different parts each hand is playing, plus the beat/tempo/rhythm, plus hearing the piece in your head while you play*, plus paying attention to what others in a group are doing (if playing in ensemble), plus projecting to the audience, all at the same time. It takes much practice for the brain to develop this skill. (*hearing a piece in your head while you play means hearing each moment of it a split second before actually playing it, as a way of planning how it will sound and how it will be expressed. If instead, you listen to how it’s coming out, it’s too late. The first way is being “at cause” of your music, and the second way is being “at effect” of your music. Being at cause is obviously desirable!)

6. Difficulty learning more than one time signature or rhythm: It’s natural to want to stick with what you already know how to do. The brain and the fingers want to go back to what’s familiar. But “expand your horizons you must”, as Yoda would say. Doing the hard work is worth the effort. And that’s really all it is: just making more of the same effort it took to learn the skills you already have.

7. Ability to follow a steady beat without being able to break it into a rhythm: This, too, is a matter of practice, but it usually requires tutoring. Also, taking African or Cuban drumming lessons helps greatly. Honest. If you can play a drum reasonably well, you will have developed a recognition of different rhythms.

Next time: PART 2  –  More about Rhythm Learning