July 13, 2015 by Tony Lee
The It’s a word we all fumbled over as we began to read aloud as kids. Most of our words work phonetically from the alphabet that we learn. Teachers and parents patiently waited as we sounded out “r-u-n” or “j-u-m-p” in our first reading encounters. There came a time, though, when “sight-words” were introduced. Which is why, at the beginning of this paragraph, you heard the word “the” in your head as you read and not “tuh-heh”—which would be the literal sounding out of the word. At some point, we also learned how to spell the word “the,” realizing in the process that it looked nothing like what the phonetic equivalent would be.
Music is a language.
Approaching the aspect of rhythm from a linguistic point of view by expanding your vocabulary of rhythmic “sight-words” can make speaking music a much more instantaneously satisfying and simple process. Getting to the point of being able to consistently speak/tap/play a specific rhythm correctly without having to count through it (i.e. sound out the word). This process of learning “rhythm sight-words” may only involve a measure—or it may involve an entire phrase. Internalizing patterns so they can be easily “spoken” (played) allows you as a musician to read quickly, understand poly-linear rhythms (two different patterns happening at the same time), use patterns in improvisation, incorporate new rhythms into your song writing, and learn music by ear with pattern recognition.
Hooked On Rhythmics
As a pianist, I often separate rhythms and pitches for beginning students learning how to read. Sometimes when I encounter a new piece, there will be times that I simply pat out or speak rhythm patterns before attempting to play the piece. Here are some tips for growing your vocabulary when it comes to “rhythmic sight words.”
1) Isolate small sections of rhythm that you’re either drawn toward or fumble over. Start with a measure that trips you up or a section of a riff in a song that you find yourself tapping or humming.
2) If reading rhythms, count out loud and work with a metronome to ensure that you’re playing them correctly (you don’t want to be playing a rhythm incorrectly for the rest of your life…haha). If you picked a section of rhythm by ear, make sure you can play/speak/tap it accurately, and then write out the rhythm that you picked, making sure it lines up with the original recording. The first time you do either of these things, you may need to work with a teacher who can guide you through it—it’s also helpful to have someone double check accuracy. Remember that everything takes a little longer the first time and gets easier with repetition—think about the first time you read a sentence aloud.
3) Once you’ve gotten totally comfortable with the pattern, play or sing it in context. As a pianist, I often play multiple lines, so I attempt the rhythm in conjunction with the other lines that are supposed to be played simultaneously.
4) Take and find the pattern out of context. Try playing scales, arpeggios, or new ideas in that rhythm pattern—this is a great way to keep warming up from being boring! Find the pattern in other pieces of music, whether through listening or reading, and explore ways to use the patterns in other songs. Maybe use the pattern in your own songwriting.
Finally, remember that music is a language and that to be fluent in any language the skills of conversation, reading and writing, are non-negotiable. Work for fluency so that you can express yourself fully and easily in your music! You’ll be amazed at how this takes the fun of playing music to the next level.
Other blogs by Kate: