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I have a fair amount of skill (meaning technique and ease of learning a new piece) with both the piano and the guitar, and have had lessons with both for years.

Unfortunately the teachers I've had have always emphasized interpretation over strict adherence to the written notes. I won't argue the benefits to this, but I will state that I now have a horrible problem keeping time. I can usually carry the tune on beat for a few measures but then I completely lose the beat and fall back to interpretation.

Normally on solo this is not an issue, but I've been wanting to play with a group, and this isn't going to fly. What are some good techniques for learning to keep time?

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While using a metronome also tap your foot so the time gets ingrained. Emily Remler suggests this over and over in her lesson videos and it helped me. – JimR Feb 27 '12 at 4:43
What does 'fall back to interpretation' mean? – race_carr Nov 17 '14 at 5:01

10 Answers 10

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Like everyone else, I would strongly suggest investing in a metronome to keep a consistent beat. In addition, practice counting along with what you are playing.

When it comes down to it, though, being able to count a consistent quarter-note (for example) is only a part of the problem, and using a metronome set to the quarter-note will really only ensure that the notes that land on that beat are on time.

I think that it is also important to make sure your metronome is beating at the right subdivision for you. If you are having trouble keeping time, you should be counting at a small enough subdivision that you can easily count with a high consistency, using the metronome to keep you honest.

For example, if you are playing a song in 4/4 at 60 bpm, you may want to set the metronome at the sixteenth-note (240 bpm) at first until you are comfortable. Count along with it; then gradually wean yourself down. You can do this by changing your metronome to the eighth-note (160 bpm) while still counting the sixteenth-notes. Again, when you are comfortable, try only counting the eighth-notes. Throughout this process, try occasionally turning your metronome off or turn it on silent mode.

The other thing I would suggest is to separate your rhythm from the melody or harmony. simply tapping out a rhythm on your leg or a desk or anything else can be very effective at learning to count and keep rhythm, because your focus is solely on the rhythm, rather than it just being one small part of the whole.

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+1 for smaller subdivisions – luser droog Feb 27 '12 at 17:24

First of all, you should buy a good metronome. Then practise with the metronome. Start moderately slow and turn it up in small steps. Do this with for some time with different songs/pieces and after a while you will notice that you get better at keeping time. In my experience there are only very few people that are completely "time-deaf".

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"only very few" >>> Does this mean that you have you met people who really can't keep time? – enthdegree Feb 27 '12 at 3:30
Yes. I met people who couldn't keep their beat if their life depended on it. Very sad. Then again, maybe they didn't own a metronome ;-) – pillmuncher Feb 27 '12 at 3:53
I know a bloke who'll sing you an absolutely beautiful version of "I Don't Want To Talk About It", while fingerpicking the chords. But whether there's four, five, six or three and a half beats in each bar, is completely unpredictable. – slim Feb 27 '12 at 16:04

I suggest that you get a good metronome (I like ones with a dial instead of buttons). But don't "start slow and then slowly speed up"! At least not yet. That will be good for new things later on, but first you need to re-learn you existing pieces. And it'll be easier on your nerves to do it at tempo (you've already learned the thing, right?).

Instead of wildly slowing and speeding, transform these effects to dynamics. Once you can do it tight to the frame, then the light rubato which may naturally occur is perfectly acceptable; even to "modernists".

Another thing to consider is the motion of the rest of your body. If your motions are fluid then your back muscles are constantly balancing the motions of your arms and the two forces are going on within your own body, and in time with the music. Thus there truly is a rhythmic "sense" that can be exercised.

Another useful skill is merely to take the tempo from the metronome. Then you keep it running in your head. To do this it's very helpful to be able to "sing" the rhythm. The vocal percussion pieces by Sheila Chandra are perfect for getting a sense of this (it comes directly from the Indian percussion tradition).

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Get a metronome, or better still something that can play you drum patterns. Some multi-fx pedals have some preset drum patterns. Used drum machines can be bought fairly cheaply.

A couple of advantages of a drum pattern over a metronome click:

  • You can pick a pattern that fits the piece you're practising (on the down side, you can pick a pattern that's a really bad fit for what you're practising)
  • A bar has more structure. It's more obvious when you're out by a beat.
  • It's more similar to when you play with a band (assuming you're playing in a genre that uses drums)

Of course, you can make a drum machine play a simple metronome pattern too.

Your problem is that you have to divide your attention between your own playing, and the beat. You're giving too much attention to your playing, and not enough to the beat.

So, learn to reverse the situation -- overcompensate and give too much attention to the beat and not enough to your music. Then find the perfect medium position between the two.

Turn the beat up loud, and as you play, listen to the beat more than you listen to yourself.

Once you're comfortable with that, bring things more into balance, so that you can hear yourself and the beat equally. But still concentrate on listening to the beat more than your own playing. If you fluff a note, play on. If you have skip part of a passage to get back in sync with the beat, do it. Resynching with the band is a good skill.

Keep practising in this way. When you think you're playing in time, you can readjust your priorities, and return to paying attention to your part.

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Many have suggested a metronome and practicing keeping time with that, but if you're playing woith a group, you need to be able to keep time with them. They're not metronomes - so although a metronome will definitely help, I don't think it's the end of the answer.

I found my ability to play in a group change massively when I stopped just listening to the sounds I was making. I don't know whether you're (subconciously perhaps) doing this, but if you are, this might be part of the problem. I'll explain:

Having played with various groups, I have noticed that some people are used to playing alone and need to hear a lot of their own intrument among the rest of the group. Sure, we all need our own (guitar in my case) poked up a bit so that we can hear the detail of what we're doing, but you still need a fair amount of the other instruments to get a context of what's happening.

This goes further than what you can hear though: It's about what you're listening to.

Next time you play along with anything, a group or a metronome or maybe a backing track, try listening to the whole thing : every instrument, including yourself, and hear the music as the audience would, as opposed to concentrating on hearing just what you're playing, which is v tempting given you want to get it right!

Once you start hearing the music as a whole, it helps with a lot of things including an appropriate volume, timing, and is a great way of ensuring you're fitting in with the band rather than just playing your bit and hoping all's well.

It might be that you're already listening this way in which case it'll sound like I'm accusing you of being self-centred musically. Please ldon't take it that way - tis just a suggestion :-)

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Just recently came across this lesson with Victor Wooten on keeping time. Most of the tips he goes through are ones I've seen others mention too (e.g. halving the tempo), the five over four one was new to me though. Although he's a pro and plays a groove way above my head, you can instead simplify it, the important thing here is to play rhythm while staying on the beat.

If you have a DAW you can also record yourself playing and pay attention to where you're missing. And you could also program a click track and remove one beat in each measure, another exercise I've heard people suggest to keep time.

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That lesson is fantastic. – slim Feb 27 '12 at 14:58

Interesting! I too focus on interpretation, as any machine can play a piece of music. In my view, the pulse has to come from within, an outside source, ie metronome, is useful when given a bpm as tempo. I can't stand metronomes really, but they do have their uses. I use them only as a guide. Best of luck with your playing. perhaps Bartok would help you

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One thing that has helped me be more attuned to following timing is playing the keyboard. When you play with the built in auto-accompaniment, you are forced to keep time. Over time you get more used to following the pace of the measures, and you mentally divide things that you hear into groups of measures, measures, etc. Also my keyboard flashes a red light on the first beat of the measure and a green light on the other beats, so if you somehow skipped or added a beat somewhere you'll be able to tell.

For getting better at conquering patterns of note timing (rythm), one very helpful technique I read somewhere is: when you learn a new piece, do it in 3 steps. Practice just the sequence of notes without regard to rythm; practice the exact timing of the notes without changing pitch; and finally play taking both into account. When you follow this "divide and conquer" method you'll find that in the end you'll have it much better.

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A key element to good timing is not only being able to keep time with a metronome, but being able to keep good time without a metronome. IMO this is a downfall to getting an analog-style metronome because they are always "on" so you are constantly dependent on it for your own time. With some digital metronomes and also with music software you can set it up to mute the click temporarily which allows you to practice keeping time without the metronome and then check your self to see how you're doing. Then when the click comes back on you will know immediately if you drifted off tempo while it was muted. Once you get to where you can really lock into the downbeat when the click kicks back on you should notice a big improvement in your ability to keep good time with other music and musicians.

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Learn the Eastman system of counting. It is really easy to learn, and the mnemonics make it really easy to memorize. You won't always have the opportunity to play with things like a metronome, and those aren't helpful if the tempo changes anyways.

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It sounds like OP can already interpret a rhythm. It's keeping tempo alongside other players that's the problem. – slim Feb 27 '12 at 14:51
Maybe you could explain the method... – American Luke Feb 27 '12 at 18:45
Maybe searching for ' The Eastman System of Counting' would explain the method – cutrightjm Feb 28 '12 at 17:47

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