Rhythm Series: Keeping Time

Keeping a steady pulse is a fundamental skill for any musician, and it is especially important to any one who is part of the rhythm section. Even in styles of music that encourage flexible rhythmic expression (i.e. rubato, etc.), the ability to maintain an accurate pulse is essential for a musician. No matter what style of music we play, or what instrument, we can all benefit from improving our “time.”

One of the most common causes of tempo problems is a performer’s inability to maintain an accurate internal pulse. In order to keep a steady beat musically we must be able to consistently feel the beat/pulse. Precise rhythmic acuity is the result of not only of an intellectual understanding of rhythm, but a finely honed physical sensation of pulse as well.

What does it mean to keep an internal pulse?

First off, an internal pulse something you feel physically, not something you understand intellectually. It is also something you feel… well…internally, as opposed to externally.

I sometimes try to express the sensation of feeling a pulse internally like this:

Dr. D: “Have you ever been to a concert where the music was so loud that you could feel the beat of the bass drum in your chest?.

Student: “Yes.”

Dr. D: “That is what you want to feel when you play”

Most people comprehend my meaning immediately. Your pulse should not be abstract or ethereal, but tangible. Although you can move your body to the beat by tapping your foot, bobbing your head, dancing, etc., it is the internal sensation, not it’s external representation, which is most important in having a good sense of tempo. Don’t start tapping your foot and hope it will remain steady. It won’t, and you will only be fooling yourself if you think it will. It is highly unlikely that your foot will keep a steady pulse without your express direction to do so, particularly while playing a complicated passage.

Of course, you can have an excellent rhythmic sense and not move outwardly at all. Some people feel this is the ideal goal to shoot for, others find it an irrelevant goal. Whether you like foot tapping and head bobbing or not, it is essential to realize that an internal pulse is something you experience, not something you understand. Aim for the feeling.

Using a Metronome to Improve Pulse

When someone performs with an inconsistent pulse, (i.e. they “can’t keep a beat”) they are usually advised to practice with a metronome. While this is an appropriate prescription for someone diagnosed with poor rhythmic accuracy, it is an incomplete instruction.

Although most of us know we should “use a metronome,” many people never learn HOW to use a metronome so that their sense of pulse actually improves. As a result, so many aspiring musicians practice with their metronome clicking or beeping away for hours on end, to no avail. They seem to have improved rhythmic accuracy when the metronome is going, but once it is off, they are back where they started. No matter the hours spent, they don’t improve. This can be frustrating.

The primary thing to realize is that the metronome should only be a guide to check your internal pulse, and not a crutch to keep time for you. If you are letting the metronome keep the time, and you are not feeling an internal pulse simultaneously, then you are not using the metronome to it’s best advantage. In short, the metronome is keeping time, but you aren’t. You are relying on the metronome, but not learning form it. Don’t fall into this trap.

When using a metronome you should keep an internal pulse of your own, one that just happens to be in sync with the metronome. In this way, the metronome can show you when, where and how often you need to correct your internal pulse. When your internal pulse rushes, drags or drops out entirely, you should notice it and adjust it to match the metronome. Again, awareness is key. The more you practice in this manner, the better your internal pulse will get. When the metronome is off, you should continue to feel your internal pulse, which you have been training with the metronome on.

When practicing with a metronome, you should be striving to create and maintain a visceral feeling of accurate pulse. If you remember this every time you click on the metronome, you should be on your way to an improved sense of time.

Next time: More Rhythm Series

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Dan Greig

    Well said Dr D.

  2. I’ve always been told to “count” while playing and I very rarely do. I’ve never been a foot tapper either, but I do feel the beat to some degree. I have been contemplating buying a drum machine to just work on grooving. Good article.

  3. I’ve heard the best way to set yourself up with a metronome is to start at a tempo your comfortable with (like 120 bpm), and play a groove. Then take that same groove, at that same tempo, but put your met. at 60 bpm. Then half it again to 30bpm. It forces you to keep your own time, building your internal pulse in the process.

  4. This doesn’t tell you how to internalize the beat, so the instruction is still incomplete. As someone who is only just recognizing how to do this, I can empathize with people who don’t “feel” it.

    As your article states, I could practice for hours at a time with a metronome but the moment it was off, my guitar playing felt sloppy and disjointed. Good enough to be recognizable, but it didn’t have groove and fluidity.

    The answer? Count out loud! Seriously! 2 nights of doing this and I could already start to feel that pulse. That internal pulse that allows your hands, feet, head, whatever you want to move, to move in time to the pulse. Something I hadn’t ever really felt with any consistency before.

    I was stoked. So I would recommend the counting out loud method to anyone struggling with basic rhythm.

    • AR RT

      Hi Garry!I send you a facebook friend request.I try to sing but i have a problem with rhythm and tempo.Can you describe how to count to start to feel that pulse?