On this site we frequently write about the benefits of ear training for improvising, with good reason. Hearing and singing intervals, melodies, chord progressions, etc. is one area of daily practice that will directly affect your improvising for the better. However, ear training isn’t only limited to improving your harmonic sensitivity. Developing rhythmic awareness and the ability to internalize all aspects of time can also be improved through ear training exercises.
The concept of time for improvisers is just as important as navigating the intricacies of a chord progression. Although this may seem obvious, it’s a fact that is largely ignored by harmonic players, especially in educational settings. The reality is, a soloist who plays with bad time, whether it’s rushing, accenting weird beats, or just plan not swinging, might as well be playing wrong notes. The end result is the same: a negative effect on the listener.
Improving your time and rhythmic awareness requires daily practice. Just because you aren’t a drummer, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be focusing on rhythmic concepts in the practice room. In fact, it means that you should be concentrating on time even more. Attaining rhythmic freedom is an achievable goal and the path there starts with training our ears to hear time in the same way that we hear melodies.
Hear it, internalize it, don’t think about it
The reason we practice ear training is to internalize the sound of what we’re trying to play, so when we’re improvising, it’s one less thing to think about. Whether it’s intervals, chord qualities, or chord progressions, the end result should be instant recognition and reaction. The same should be true for odd meters or rhythmic patterns.
When you’re playing over changes you don’t want to be stuck thinking about the individual notes of a scale because it will inevitably slow you down creatively. Similarly, when you’re playing in odd meters you don’t want to be counting every beat (12345, 12345, etc.) throughout the entire tune. Not only is it tedious, it’s an activity that’s counterproductive to improvising in the moment. The goal is to train your ears to hear and feel every beat so that your mind is free to be creative.
Conceptualize your goal
The first step to developing rhythmic awareness and impeccable time, is knowing what good time sounds like. Just as we must have an aural idea of what a good sound is before we practice tone quality, we need to have an internal conception of time before we start playing. For example, you can try to verbalize the process of swinging eighth note lines, but to really understand what “swinging” is, you need to hear it first hand.
In learning both sound and rhythm, the process is the same: listening then imitation, ad infinitum, until that sound or rhythm becomes a part of you. For jazz musicians, this process is achieved through transcription and immersion in great records. However, much of the time when we transcribe solos, we are so concerned with the notes that the other factors of the line like time, articulation, and inflection can be lost. These rhythmic aspects of the solo are equally important to the actual pitches. By limiting your focus entirely on the pitches, you are only getting half of the information.
Having a mental image and aural goal ingrained as you approach your practice session, will make the physical practice much easier. The body has an intuitive way of imitating sounds and actions where the intellect often falls short. For instance, rather than trying to verbally describe and analyze Freddie Hubbard’s sound, simply turn on a record and absorb the actual sound.
What took a paragraph to vaguely describe with words, can be achieved in seconds through focused listening. The same is true for rhythm and articulation. Instead of thinking about how to execute a line, really hear it and imitate it. In this way, the body will unconsciously do what it must to create the sound or produce the time.
If harmony is connected to our ears, rhythm is directly connected to the physical part of ourselves. We have a natural inclination to feel time go by just as we are compelled to move and dance when we hear a beat. Time, just like sound, is not an intellectual exercise. Because music is a harmonic and rhythmic art form, it is a pursuit that must include our ears as well as our bodies.
The process of feeling time should begin in the practice room. When you begin working on a new rhythm or a tricky meter, be sure to include a physical aspect to speed up the process of internalizing the new time. You can tap your foot, clap the rhythm, sing the accents, etc. to feel the beat or accents.
Anything will work, as long as you have some connection to the time going by rather than just repetitive mental counting. At times I’ve even had to march in place when working hemiolas and poly rhythms across the bar line, just to keep a steady beat. As you begin to internalize the time, you will be able to feel it go by subconsciously and as a result be able to create lines on top of it.
Using your metronome
The metronome should be your starting point when you work on rhythmic ear training in the practice room. All the lines, etudes, patterns, tunes, etc. that you practice should be done within the context of time. Remember, the metronome should be a tool that you intently focus on and use to internalize the time, not a background noise that you begrudgingly try to line up with.
Without a rhythmic context in your practice, when you go to play with a live rhythm section, you’ll be largely ignorant of the rhythmic aspect of your playing. For starters, set your metronome to quarter =72, slow enough that you can really hear the time going by. With a steady beat from the metronome, you can do a number of different exercises that pinpoint your internal sense of time.
To get beyond feeling time in the standard way of every beat (quarters), in 2 (cut time), and as every eighth, there are a number of exercises that you can do. Here are three rhythmic ear training exercises to do with the metronome that will help in hearing and internalizing your time:
I.) Feel the metronome clicks as beats 2 and 4
This is good place to start in shifting your rhythmic awareness. Instead of hearing every beat in the measure, mentally make the metronome clicks beats 2 and 4. Imagine that you’re listening to a rhythm section and the metronome is a drummer’s high-hat, closing on 2 and 4. This may be tricky at first, because we naturally want to make that first click a downbeat. Begin by snapping your fingers on 2 and 4 and counting along with the time (1 2 3 4). Hearing that first click as 2 will take some practice, but after awhile, your ear will be able to shift.
As this becomes easier, try singing some melodies along with the metronome. Remember that physically connecting to the beat (tapping your foot, snapping fingers, clapping) will help in ingraining the time as you sing. Finally, as feeling 2 and 4 becomes natural, start to practice bebop heads and other standards in four along with the metronome. Feeling the time in this way inherently produces a swing feel and as you perform will a real rhythm section, you’ll have a solid internal sense of time to work with.
II) Feel the beat in 3
With the metronome still at quarter=72, hear each click as a dotted quarter, making the time in 3. In your mind subdivide each big beat into 3 eighths (1 23, 1 23). Try playing a major scale along with this beat, as if in 3/8, accenting every downbeat:
Next, alternate between a quarter note and a dotted quarter (triplet) feel:
In doing these exercises, you’ll begin to develop the skill of implying a triplet over the time, adding more rhythmic interest to your lines.
III) Using accents to create implied polyrhythms
As well as playing triplets over the time, you can imply different meter through the use of accents. For example, take the arpeggiated seventh chords of a major scale. Accent every group of three, implying a different meter over 4/4:
The basic rhythm of the line above is :
A dotted quarter pattern that falls on beat one every third bar. Whether it is played in a linear fashion, as with the arpeggiated 7th chords, or in a dotted quarter pattern it will be a great way to provide rhythmic variety.
Hearing odd meters
It’s common to have trouble with odd meters like 3, 7, and 5 when we first encounter them. This is logical because we’ve been accustomed to playing in four since we began to play an instrument. Because of this, we hear 4/4 subconsciously; it’s ingrained into us and we naturally feel comfortable in this time signature.
The way that we had to learn to play in four: counting aloud, physical reinforcement like clapping and tapping, feeling the subdivision of the beat, and repeated listening, is the same way that we will learn to play in odd meters. By aurally focusing on the time and feeling it physically, we will have a better chance of playing creatively over these odd meters.
Say you are working on playing in 5/4, the first step is to immerse yourself in this time signature. Find a record with a tune in 5 on it and listen to it over and over until feeling 5 is natural. Hear the entire measure go by, subdivide each beat, divide the measure into 2 + 3, then 3+2, etc. Once you’ve got aural and physical control of the time, you will be more successful in actually playing and improvising in 5/4.
Creating a strong internal sense of time, both aurally and mentally, is a key part of becoming a complete musician. Many times I’ve worked on lines, thinking the problem was my articulation or fingers, when the true culprit was my innate sense of time. If you truly hear the rhythm that you want to play, it will be that much easier to communicate time through your instrument.