My question is part general, and part specific, because I'm having a hard time with a specific song, but my question is on how to approach the more general problem.


I'm learning some jazz fusion to broaden my scope, and I came across some songs that have rhythm sections that are really hard to get into. I'm talking about beats where you could feel it in straight 4/4, but the notes of the rhythm section are syncopated and sub-divided, and not only that, but fast.

The general question

Are there any techniques used by experienced musicians to pick up tricky rhythmic themes?

The specifics of the case I'm working right now

This part can be ignored if you think the question is answerable already, but it does provide an example of what I mean.

Take What About Me? by Snarky Puppy. You can feel the whole thing in 4/4, and probably get by.

But a few seconds after 0:40, the band starts playing something that I think is technically still 4/4, but is played completely syncopated (if that's the appropriate term).

I spent some time and transcribed the section. At least what the guitar/bass/synth players are collectively playing.

enter image description here

If we group this in a way that might make sense, we can see that besides the first note (which would cover four 16th-notes), the rest can be thought of as three 16th-notes followed by two 16th-note rests. So groupings of five 16th-notes.

But my problem is that playing that while feeling 4/4 seems outrageous.

Not to mention, after around 4:55, the song moves towards a drum solo where this strange section is being played while the drummer seemingly keeps feeling 4/4 (judging by how his left foot keeps the hi-hat slapping those 4s). Then at 5:40, the drummer switches to a beat where (and I don't know how to explain this with words), he moves the downbeats to align with the downbeats of the strange accompanyment I mentioned.

So if an experienced musician were given this piece of music to learn on short notice (like most of the guys in this video were), would their jazz experience allow them to keep feeling 4/4 in this section, or is it more likely that they'd "switch"? I can't really make out a feel that makes sense for this, which is why I ask.

  • If I elaborated too much in the "specifics", please let me know if the question can be edited into on-topicness rather than closed.
    – Alec
    Dec 1, 2022 at 23:07
  • 1
    Speaking as one experienced musician, I could play these rhythms, maintaining 4/4, without difficulty. As an SE community member, I'd say two things: 1) As an SE question, this needs more information about what you've tried and the specific area(s) where you're having trouble, and 2) There are numerous questions here about practicing rhythms, both specific and general, so the post should show some of the research you've already done and why it didn't work.
    – Aaron
    Dec 2, 2022 at 0:23
  • @Aaron I do agree on being able to play this rhythm and follow the beat without difficulty, but I think this question is adequate as it is. OP has tried transcribing the rhythm to analyze it, and I think the description of how they experience the drum solo indicates the particular reason why OP has trouble with this rhythm.
    – Edward
    Dec 2, 2022 at 3:22
  • @Aaron - Thanks for the input! It's good to know that with experience I could continue feeling 4/4. It was an open question to me whether they kept feeling 4/4 or switched to some weird 1/4 + 5/16 subdivisions which is my current hell. :D As to what my post lacks; I agree. Perhaps I came here a bit early in my endeavor, so I don't have much research to elaborate on. But the comments and answers that are here so far are very reassuring already.
    – Alec
    Dec 2, 2022 at 8:58
  • Having listened to the Snarky Puppy piece, I think this will help - listen to the trumpet melody at around 0:45, which hews significantly more closely to 4/4 than the transcribed rhythm section does there. Imagine that playing as you're playing your guitar part.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 2, 2022 at 16:19

2 Answers 2


The general problem:

This is a specific case of the more general problem: you're having trouble playing a rhythm which you haven't encountered before.

The solution is not surprising:

  1. Learn the rhythm at a slow tempo, as slow as you need. 30bpm if you need to. It helps to have a metronome clicking out every 16th note.

  2. Slowly bring the tempo up. If you're losing control of the rhythm, slow it back down.

  3. Eventually you will be at 120bpm. Eventually comes much faster for more experienced musicians. For something this complex and fast, you will probably memorize the line before you can play it cleanly at 120.

You can get better/faster at following these kinds of rhythms by practicing rhythm exercises. Drummers can be caught practicing all kinds of weird rhythms that would rarely (if ever) be found in written music. For example, only the upbeats. Only the "e" of every beat. Only the second triplet partial of every beat. An accent on every 7th 8th note in 4/4. These types of exercises strengthen your ability to follow all kinds of rhythms without losing track of the downbeat.

Your specific issue:

I've experienced what you're experiencing before.

Certain rhythms have a strong "pull" based on your musical experience... Here's what I mean.

If I played a constant, evenly-spaced "tap tap tap tap" you would probably think that I'm tapping the beat. You would never think I'm tapping the second partial of every triplet, and that the downbeat is actually between my taps. To ignore your intuition that one of the taps must be the downbeat, and follow a pulse that actually falls between the notes... That's difficult.

I strongly suspect that in this case, your "pull" is the idea that the last note of these groupings of 3 notes must be the downbeat. It certainly sounds like it could be, and it's easy to follow that "downbeat". But that's not actually the downbeat, and if you listen with the idea that that's the downbeat, you will be completely thrown off every couple bars. That moment in the drum solo where the drummer matches up with the accompaniment's downbeat- He's actually matching the accompaniment's syncopation. That was never the downbeat, and this is where your confusion comes from. (I do have to agree, the idea that this song is in 4/4 does seem outrageous once you've locked into the wrong pulse. I experienced that by jumping to the middle of the drum solo. If I listen from the beginning, I can follow the correct pulse all the way through.)

The thing you're missing is the ability to override that strong but misplaced sense of pulse. But you don't necessarily need to learn how to "ignore the wrong pulse", you can instead replace it with a stronger sense of the correct pulse. I've had this exact issue with songs before, and it will probably take quite a few careful listens to hear it right. You may find this very helpful for your careful listening- someone has already made a clicktrack version of this performance.

  • Let me add from my drum experience: „syncopation“ is a way to express „ I didn‘t care so far about playing all combinations of rests and notes for a given subdivision of time“. Once you did and practiced, this mystery resolves: you just learned to play rests as precisely as notes. See an example here for all 8 combinations of a triplet music.stackexchange.com/questions/126216/… . The „magic“ in this case is to move from 4/4 to a 12/12 subdivision, so to say.
    – MS-SPO
    Dec 2, 2022 at 4:26
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    To add, when playing 16th notes straight, as you notated, identify and practice the 2*2*2*2=16 combinations of playing note and rest for the 4 positions in time of a quarternote subdivided by 4, first. Your notation covers half of them, roughly.
    – MS-SPO
    Dec 2, 2022 at 4:34
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    Oh wow, you put into much better words what I was trying to say. It's precisely the case that I feel pulled towards feeling the third note in each grouping as a downbeat. The 4/4 feel disappears completely for me. I tried slowing it down a few times, but the best I could get out of it was counting 1-2-3-4-5 1-2-3-4-5 where the 1-2-3 are notes, and 4-5 are rests. It works out pretty well all in all, but it doesn't feel correct. I'll be trying to slow it down more. Oh, and the click track! I was about to start making my own. Didn't even google because it felt so unlikely to exist already.
    – Alec
    Dec 2, 2022 at 8:34
  • Your answer sounds like my piano teacher! Very methodical and practical
    – Zachiah
    Dec 3, 2022 at 17:00
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    To update, this was extremely helpful. Playing along with the clicktrack at 75% and going up and down by 5% every now and then helped to cement the 4/4 feel during the syncopated parts. I still have some issue keeping the 4/4 feel when the drummer joins the syncopation's downbeat with his own, but I'm getting there.
    – Alec
    Dec 5, 2022 at 13:54

I guess I heard syncopation starting at approximately the one-minute mark. It sounded to me like the sort of thing one could get comfortable with after playing it more slowly, to get the contours and rhythms into one's head and body.

There is software you can use to slow something down.

One way is to change the "tempo" in Audacity.

If you're a good reader, maybe you'd find a fake book notation of the melody, or maybe someone has made a midi.

Do you know how to conduct? I find that helpful for complex rhythms.

  • Interesting! You experience syncopation at the one-minute mark? That's where I feel resolved back to a steady 4/4. I'm a very novice reader, but I have spent a lot of time looking at scores for this song, simply for the rhythmic notation.
    – Alec
    Dec 2, 2022 at 9:51
  • @Alec - Please feel free to share one or more scores. Dec 20, 2022 at 2:44

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