Ah, rhythm. Our hearts keep a beat (hopefully!) and most anyone can tap his or her feet or hands without much effort. But based on close to 40 years of giving guitar lessons I absolutely believe that internalizing rhythmic concepts and repeating them may be the single most taken for granted and for some people, difficult musical concept there is.
Most people have never really thought much about it before they begin learning a musical instrument. The idea of breaking down beats into small sections and defining those sections with names like 2/4, ¾, 4/4, 6/8 or more complex meters is tough – and frustrating. It seems like it should be so easy, assuming a person understands the concept. I tell my students to imagine measures as links in a chain – individual pieces connected to the whole. Unfortunately, theory and practice are often difficult to combine.
One of the reasons I bring this up has to do with recent trends in acoustic guitar music. Groups like Mumford & Sons, Punch Brothers, and many others are writing songs that are quite complex rhythmically, often switching meters again and again within a song. I admit without shame that some of those tunes are difficult for me to play accurately and all but impossible to teach unless the student has deep familiarity with the song. I’m working on it though.
It’s pretty easy to understand the attraction of multi-rhythmic songs. Their initial unpredictability catches your ear. A musician can’t help but try to break them down right away and predict what’s coming next. The harder that is, the more interesting the song tends to be. But only to a point.
The dilemma songwriters have faced as long as there has been popular music is to combine familiarity with freshness, in such a way that the listener doesn’t have to work too hard to internalize (i.e., “like”) the song. My dad, who was a great musician, used to talk about “body music” and “head music.” He felt that early rock and roll was purely the body type and was quite disdainful of it as many of his generation were. I didn’t agree with him – as no teenager ever agrees with his parents’ disdain of current pop music – but I secretly understood what he was saying. Not that I would admit it until years later!
Putting aside for the moment any discussion of the relative merits of the lyrics in Mumford and Punch Brothers songs, I have finally begun to understand the attraction of today’s acoustic popular music. It DOES combine both the body-and-head aspects and it does that with rhythm. I do find most Mumford songs to be a bit on the formulaic side but there is no denying the joy of playing in their music.
So I guess I just have to work harder to find a way to teach what they and their contemporaries are doing. Old dog, new tricks. Concentrate – and count the beats!
Peace & good music,