Rhythm As a Medium

Quite a long post this one! It’s an article I wrote for the drummers journal
You can download the journal free at the link bellow

Rhythm Medium lo-rez

For drummers rhythm is important and in order to be good musicians we have to have a good sense of it. This may seem an obvious statement but perhaps there is more to the word than we give it credit for.

Thinking about rhythm as a concept is one way to help any drummer develop their role as a musician and is just one tool that can help to fuel creative ideas and more expressive performances. I am going to share some thoughts about rhythm and then give some tips for applying these ideas to the drums.

Historically philosophical memes have led to scientific experimentation and discovery. In the world of music however (in my opinion) drummers will seek technical ability (the science bit) as the start and end point for their musical achievement. Perhaps a drummer wanting to develop their own unique style would do well to start feeding the pursuit of technique with creative and philosophical ideas and experimentation. This practice may be to become a better musician or just to enjoy the moment better while playing the best instrument in the world.

I feel that rhythm is a descriptive force. As a drummer I give it a home through the playing of the kit and by developing technically I enhance my ideas with the skill to carry them off in performance. Through the experience of practice and performance I continually develop my language skills in translating emotive thought into music. Here rhythm is the vestal carrying my ideas.

Philosophical Quotes in relation to rhythm – Source – A Philosophy of Rhythm, Lucille D. Lamkin. 1934

Aristoxenus, Disciple of Aristotle.
“Rhythm is an ordering (or a defined ordering) of times”

“Rhythm is the property of a sequence of events in time which produces on the mind of the observer the impression of proportion between the duration of several events or groups of events of which the sequence is composed”

According to William Thomson: “The most fundamental error made about rhythm is that it is ‘an ordering of times’. The most fundamental truth about rhythm is that it is an ordering of blows.” (here blows means accents or stresses)

Through thinking about and discussing rhythm I have come to think of my role and aim as a musician differently than just keeping time. I have come to think of time as an abstract form which passes differently according to your state of conciseness. Music is something that briefly alters conciseness and rhythm shapes the dynamic flow of music. Suddenly thinking about drumming as time keeping however technically it is applied doesn’t seem to cut it. Drumming is more like controlling the momentum of time and sculpting the shape of the musical soundscape as it passes by.

This probably seems convoluted and to the casual observer the music is either enjoyable or not. The point here is to offer one way firstly to enrich your experience and enjoyment of playing the drums in whatever setting and secondly to add another layer of quality to your learning process which will hopefully lead to newly enhanced technical ability.

Can a drummer have that much control over what he or she is playing?

The point is not to have control in the technical sense but to create a different sort of control over the sensation of playing the drums. It’s the idea that you can feed you technical learning with a focus on a philosophical view-point. This can help you feel more open to creative expression while you are performing. Using Rhythm as a medium is just one concept that could feed this. You could just as easily think about cloud formations of film soundtracks and apply these ideas loosely to your practice regime.


Concept Practice Methods.

 Listen to naturally occurring patterns.

Use the record function on your phone or if you have a field recorder even better. Listen out for rhythmic patterns in your every day environment. It could be anything from rain on the window to cars passing by or people’s speech patterns. As soon as you start looking for them there will be no end to them. Record them and listen back. If you have music software or a sampling app use it to create a loop. Just listening to this is good but you could take it further and try to copy it on a practice pad. Don’t just copy the rhythmic patterns that you hear but also see if you can get any nuances of the soundscape into your dynamics.

Now expand it onto the kit. Obviously this kind of drumming wont fit snugly into the middle of your bands set but you might find that you are more mindful of your place within any given beat giving you the confidence to add that extra bit of dynamics or push and pull the beat around adding another detention to the rhythmic shape of the music.

Define your control over syncopation and on beats.

Sit and practice syncopation against your leading hand. Playing against a click gives you a clear definition of time to follow.

A slow click is good for this as the slower you play the more increments you will notice. Between 60 and 80 bpm try hitting the pulse precisely with your leading hand. Practice playing exactly on time then slightly before and slightly behind the pulse.

Couple in your bass, snare and hi-hats and try playing perfectly in time with your lead hand. Then practice the pushing and pulling again. You can do this one at a time or in couples or with all three at the same time. There are endless variations here and you will start to notice textural things happening. Keep the lead hand on time.

n.b. It is a good idea to practice your L+R Feet on the floor rather than on pedals at first that way it is easer to tell what your timings are as you feel the hit more accurately in the sole of your foot.

In the same way as you practiced your on beats to a slow click play around with the timings of your 8th and 16th notes. There are many subtle variations to just playing perfectly quantized 8th and 16th beats.

Use dynamics rhythmically.

Think of a couple of dynamic sounds or accents that work for you.

Some good ones to concedder would be.

  • Rim shots
  • buzz hits
  • pedal hat sounds (tight or sloshy)
  • Ghost notes or accents
  • Ride bell sounds

Doing this on paper first will help you to work against the temptation of falling into comfortable patterns.

Write down a well rehearsed rhythmic progression or fill pattern of at least 2 bars and mark out an accent pattern through it. Try adding in your sounds and accents to the accent pattern so now you have your rhythmic progression along with and a longer rhythmic phrase spread over its duration made up from accents and stresses.

I hope these ideas will just be the start point as you start to think about rhythm in a more in-depth way. Remember that having good technique doesn’t end at getting control over your rudiments, accents dynamics etc but can also be fed by your own creative ideas. Thinking in this way can lead your drumming down endless new creative roots.

Signing out of the journal now

Ben Martin,

(BGM Rhythms)



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