My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Baking cakes - conquering rhythm

Have you ever tried to put together a cake without a recipe?  I have.  It wasn't pretty.  

And now my six-year old daughter has also been initiated into the "I'm going to just wing it" school of baking with just about the same result.  She was off to a great start - flour, sugar (of course!), fruit flavored water (creative!), milk, and I believe some mushed up strawberries but that was about it.  No baking soda, no baking powder.  When she was convinced that she was done the cake went into the oven and we waited, and waited, and waited.  After about 5 hours of intense cake watching, my daughter decided it was as done as it was going to be and we pulled it out of it's misery.  What we had was not a spongy, texturally decadent confection, it was a gooey, slimy, jiggly, shapeless, and pretty tasteless mass of creativity.  But it was while trying to swallow a bite of my daughter's "cake" that I was struck with an analogy to music making.  

Music without accurate rhythm or a steady pulse is like a cake without a recipe.  

Crazy?  Perhaps, but hang in there with me and I'll try to explain myself...

I play with a lot of musicians thanks to my profession as a piano collaborator and it has been surprising to me how often I encounter folks that don't really know what they're doing when it comes to rhythm.  Sometimes it's just a few places here and there where I suspect they are completely guessing at what it's supposed to be, but other times it is quite apparent that the musician simply doesn't understand the mathematics that are behind the rhythm.  It's almost as if they think that rhythm isn't something concrete but that like musicality, it can vary from person to person, or that it's negotiable.  Now please understand that I'm not saying there isn't room for a little give and take, that rhythm can't be played with for expressive purposes.  I'm not saying that it all.  What I'm saying is that in order to play a piece of music in a way that will capture the audience and get those feet tapping, rhythm must be understood.  It's like baking a cake.  Just as you need so much baking soda, salt, and baking powder per every cup of flour, you need 6 eighth note pulses in a 6/8 measure...not 8, not 7 and-a-half.  And if we don't follow the recipes, whether it be musical or culinary, what we end up with is  a mess that most likely won't appeal to anybody.  

I realize I'm being a little more confrontational than I usually am but it's because I think this is really, really important.  And yes, I know rhythm can be hard.  Yes, it takes time and discipline to sit down and figure out what those dots and bars mean.  Yes, it sometimes takes clapping, walking or dancing to the music in order to internalize it and yes, it can be a pain, I realize.  But rhythm can be conquered, I promise.  And when the lightbulb clicks and suddenly rhythm is part of a young musician's life, wow, is it an awesome experience!  Their ooey gooey musical mess suddenly puffs up with air and becomes...

© daniaphoto -

So let's pull out those cookbooks, measuring spoons, and conversion tables, and let's bake us some cakes...

And eat them too, of course!

Note:  If anyone has any suggestions of ways that people can work on rhythm - websites, books, methods, etc...please feel free to share them here in the comments section!  Many thanks.  


  1. I struggle with the need for rhythm in music. On one hand pretty much every thing I write is rhythmic, intensely so. But, pieces like Ligeti's Atmospheres prove that the music doesn't need to have an obvious sense of rhythm to create an interesting sound-scape.

    Now, do musicians need to have a solid sense of rhythm and timing - YES. Because even the atmospheric pieces don't work if the musicians aren't in sync.

    But there is a difference between the music needing to have rhythm to be music and the need for musicians to have rhythm to make the music come alive.

  2. Chip,
    It is so interesting to hear a composer's perspective on this subject. I hadn't necessarily thought of the more atmospheric type of music that tends not to be rhythmic in the traditional sense. That music too has it's challenges but different - it's so important for the musicians to have an innate sense of time that can be felt collectively amongst all the musicians so that they can move together. Otherwise, some folks end up always waiting for another to move first which tends not to feel very effortless, organic, or atmospheric.

    Thank you for your thoughts and for getting me thinking in some different ways!

    All the best,

  3. "Their ooey gooey musical mess suddenly puffs up with air" … I loved this! I agree, knowing you're not talking about inexpressive, metronomic rhythm - and none of this applies to ambient music. My skin crawls when not only written rhythms are played inaccurately but there is no clear sense of meter, phrase, form. For me it's an absence of bones - a jellyfish style of playing non-jellyfish music.

    My sister dearly loves lively folk and bluegrass music. A happy soul, she walks around humming or singing a lot. Also a person who never wears a watch, shows up when she's ready to (even if you've rushed to be on time, then waited literally hours), insisting it's fine because she's "spontaneous," not rigid like me (this all relates, bear with me :-) ).

    When she hums or sings, it would be impossible to sing (or play) along because, guess what, she has no sense of time - not hours, minutes, or a beat. Her music making is happy, but a shapeless, meandering stumble of sound which has no
    direction or form. That's just fine if it's the intention of the music and composer but, in this case, drives me to tune her out lest I start clapping or conducting to
    inject a beat. That's not a sister's job. Sadly, in some collaborations, it may be a pianist's - sort of like the drummer in a band. I don't want that job, either.

  4. I have gotten to the point where I feel internalizing the rhythm of a piece is possibly the most important part of playing it. I've noticed that the biggest problem amateur musicians have -- the thing that detracts the most from their performance -- is a lack of attention to the rhythmic pulse and a lack of ability to know how to fix the problems that ensue from this. Yes, the pulse needs to be flexible and organic and all that, but yes, it needs to be there. The metronome can be your best friend. Unfortunately, I don't know how to convince people of this.

  5. Dear Anonymous,
    You like the ooey gooey cake analogy and I love your comparison of rhythmless music making to a "jellyfish style of playing." That's fabulous and is so appropriate!

    I also love your story about your sister. I find it interesting that in spite of her love for folk and bluegrass she has a difficult time with rhythm. That music seems to beg for rhythmic integrity and drive. But you didn't say that she actually plays it herself so perhaps that explains it.

    Thank you for your comments and for reading.

    All the best,

  6. Harriet,
    It's great to hear from you again! And yes, I completely agree with you. Having a dependable, steady, internal beat was not my strong suit for so many years and I was completely baffled as to how one obtained one. I remember even getting desperate enough that I was going to try to find someone that could hook up an electric shock delivering device that hooked up to a metronome - I was hoping that getting zapped to the beat would speed up the internalizing, lol! Fortunately I wasn't successful in that endeavor. Since then I've tried to solve the problem in many ways...walking to the music, conducting, counting out loud. I think I'm getting better at it all but I still wonder if there are some of us that might always struggle a bit with feeling pulse.

    I had an interesting experience this past year - I was accompanying my husband (a singer) at his recital at which he also had a jazz combo accompanying him on some standards. The bass player was standing literally back to back to me while I was sitting at another piano on stage. Wow. What a rush and talk about internalizing pulse but in a more enjoyable way! I'm temped to hire him to come and sit back to back with me during my practice sessions!

    Anyway, so how to spread this necessity to others? Good question. Perhaps we just need to not be shy about encouraging others to work on rhythm. I also think it would be great to know about more resources out there that people can turn to in order to work on pulse. It can be hard to figure it out on your own.

    I look forward to more thoughts and ideas. Thanks for sharing yours!

    Happy rhythmic playing :-)


  7. Here's another thought: You CAN bake a cake without a recipe if you understand what elements are needed to make the result you want. If you want it to rise, you need to know the correct proportions of flour and leavening agent; if you want it to taste good, you need to know how much sugar, fat, and flavoring are needed. In short, you need to know what "cake" means. If you're trying to bake a hockey puck, the ingredients would differ. The analogy with making music is that you CAN play without a formal structure, but you need to have some understanding of what needs to be there to produce the desired result. If you want to play a minuet, you have to have a rhythmic structure. If you just want some atmospheric sounds, you don't need one -- or at least, you don't need a rhythmic pulse of three.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful post, Erica. I, too, think the beat/rhythm is very important yet often rather ignored. I think I read somewhere that people tend to be drawn to pop music more than classical just because you can feel the beat and move to it much easier with pop music. Of course rhythm is not the only thing important, but definitely it is part of the soul to the music.

    I teach music/piano to kids and adults with special needs, and steady beat is one hardest thing to teach. They enjoy music, and like to move with music (even try to dance with me!), but they are often completely out of sync to the music. Those kids can learn how to play the correct keys, but the concept of time seems to be extremely hard to understand. One girl (Down syndrome)’s mother teaches dance at University, and I feel her sad frustration about her daughter not being able to move with the music’s beat. Recently I found an article about “beat deafness” as opposed to tone deafness. It does not go beyond the findings and I am really anxious to know if the feeling of beat is in fact teachable….

    Well, it was a bit extreme side of rhythm/beat issue. Now to more common challenges of rhythm for us. I think I became more aware of the importance of rhythm while I was playing the piano/keyboard as a member of University’s Wind Symphony. The conductor was known for ambitious choice of repertoire for the group, so there were tons of contemporary music with 5/8, 7/8, etc., all mixed within a piece. He was very strict about the rhythm, so I started to count in a head (or aloud in the beginning) as I go 12123, 12123, 1212123, 1212312,..., with head bobbing (or stumping with loud shoe) on every 1. Of course I did that only in a practice room, but including the body movement on every important beat really helped internalize the rhythm. Now I enjoy playing pieces like Ginastera’s dance music where the music alternates 6/8 and 3/4 (the eighth note beat stays the same). In such music, rhythm is the soul, and without feeling it with entire body, the music will lack the liveliness.

    Through the wind symphony rehearsals, I also started paying more attention to which beat the phrase starts on. When I learned Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations in my young age, I did not realize that the melody begins on beat 2 of 4/4. The melody could kind-of make sense even if you treat that beat 2 as beat 1, but if you realize where the strongest beat 1 is within that 8-beat melody, the phrasing of the melody becomes completely different. How I played before was incorrect….

    I don’t know much about how to teach that aspect of music. But as an accompanist, I have many chances to make my young partners aware of it and help them get better with rhythmic aspect of music, using the music we work on together. If we can feel the beat together and play the rhythm completely in sync, the music will become more alive and more exciting.

    Sorry for this long comment, but thank you very much for your post. Very inspiring, and always makes me think more about what we do. THANKS!

  9. Oh Harriet, another wonderful way of looking at it! And it makes me think so much of improvisation, which is something I was never really taught or encouraged to do but that I'd love to do at some point. If and when I do delve into it, I will keep your words in mind because perhaps it will be easier to undertake knowing that I can rely on what I already do know about rhythm. I realize that this was probably not the reason why you made these last comments but it really flipped a switch in my mind!

    Thank you for that!!


  10. Miho,
    What fantastic feedback! Thank you for sharing your valuable insights into different aspects of rhythm and pulse issues. I'd love to find out more about "beat deafness" so if you read anything else in the near future and you have the time to pass it on, please do so - I'd really appreciate it. I wonder if there are some people that really couldn't get over such a problem. My husband has worked with at least one tone-deaf student before and we worked quite to see if we could help him "get over" the problem. In the end, we felt like he could improve his general sense of tonal relation but that he really was tone-deaf, perhaps beyond help.

    And I love your story of re-learning the "Harmonious Blacksmith" variations, figuring out where the main emphasis really should be. I'm amazed at how often I still catch myself mis-feeling the beats! And it's also amazing to me how trouble this problem can cause.

    So thank you, Miho, for reading, for your feedback, your thoughts, and your encouragement. They are all very much appreciated!!

    All the best,

  11. A clear conception of time (and the rhythmic possibilities the exist within time) is, to me, the most fundamental of all musical skills. There can be music without pitch, but there can never be music without rhythm (yes, even in rubato playing).

    As both a teacher of jazz improvisation, and the Alexander Technique, I find that many of the students that come to me because of coordination issues (or " technical fluency" issues) are significantly challenged with time and rhythm. As their coordination improves, so does their time and rhythmic conception. In my experience it seems that one is completely dependent upon the other.

    In the world of jazz improvisation you can hear some of the great masters playing with what could be called (by western standards) "dubious intonation", but these same masters will have a brilliant rhythmic control and imagination. And that is the foundation of their great improvising.

    Anyhow, I really liked this post. (I'm new to this blog and am very happy to have found it!) Thanks!

  12. Bill,
    And I'm so glad that I've now discovered your own blog through this comment! Thank you so very much for reading and commenting here. I have so much admiration for jazz musicians - one of my bucket wishes is to someday play with a jazz combo and feel good doing it! Getting your insight into the whole rhythm issue is fascinating to me, especially considering your interest and concentration in jazz and in improv. I had never really considered that rhythm issues could be related to a coordination issue - it definitely gives me a different angle from which to think about it.

    So thank you again and it's very nice to meet you! I look forward to future conversation and to following your blog.

    All the best,