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I keep hearing that classical musicians are not rhythmical, that they have problems with complicated rhythm patterns. I especially hear it often from jazz musicians. Is that true? If yes, how is that so? I mean, do teachers in conservatory really lack something? Isn't metronome an integral part of any classical musician's practice?

These are all very known and obvious things; however, from time to time I do hear such remarks about classical musicians from pop and especially jazz musicians. It would be great to have an explanation to this phenomenon with some clear example.

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    Hm... It will be hard to answer this objectively and decisively since it's about a subjective and easily disproven generalization. Maybe an intermediate classical musician deals with less complex rhythms than an intermediate jazz musician? But no, no advanced player can get by without being able to handle "complicated rhythm patterns." Mar 25, 2023 at 0:38
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    Relevant Adam Neely video
    – Edward
    Mar 25, 2023 at 1:22
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    I think the question is asked using false presumptions.
    – Tim
    Mar 25, 2023 at 8:07
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    Yeah, it's not 'complicated rhythm patterns' it's 'nailing the beat'.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 25, 2023 at 8:09
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    brilliant - I think so. Some serious players could sight-read anything you can write down ['technically' known as being able to read fly sh*t;) but they still couldn't sync with a good drummer laying down a groove. The disciplines are different.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 27, 2023 at 13:49

8 Answers 8

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From the point of view as a primarily jazz player that later in my career spent a lot of time in an orchestra I think the hypothesis is an oversimplification, and probably due to the eg. pop musicians who state it misunderstanding the skillset needed for a 'classical' musician.

I have experienced rehearsing an orchestra playing a piece by Franciax, a 20th century orchestral composer who used a lot of other 20th century styles in his composition. The rhythm in the strings was to be played as a clave, a relatively exotic rhythm in the most vanilla sense, and the orchestra fell apart regularly for the first few sessions. This is in a fairly good quality but definitely amateur orchestra.

In the same orchestra, another piece, I was sweating and barely keeping up with bars of odd numbers and dramatically changing tempo while the rest of the orchestra just followed the conductor and happily played it like they were taking a walk in the park.

Now you could not say the orchestra had bad rhythm, they could easily play the second piece, while I could easily play the first piece, without thinking, respectively. I have many other examples of playing rhythms in orchestral pieces so odd to me as a 'pop' musician that I couldn't get my head around them. I'd show my jazz friends what I was playing and they would all chuckle at how odd it read. Yet the music created was highly rhythmic, and arguably couldn't have been conceptualised in any better way than how it was written.

I think the stereotype comes from the huge difference in approach. An orchestra has a conductor dictating, often manipulating, the time heavily. The orchestral musicians role is to place their notes, sometimes with odd rhythms, exactly in keeping with the conductor, though often compensating for the whole orchestra being a bit behind or the sections they are meant to align with playing freely etc. It's a very organic, very musical, approach to what 'rhythm' means where any one player could ruin the whole sound and getting a good sound is only possible if everyones senses are at 100%, playing their part in the highly complex 'event' they are involved in.

On the other hand, pop/jazz musicians are very used to being given a starting tempo and then sticking to it ABSOLUTELY. Dragging a bit being a cardinal sin that may get you fired from a session. A 'groove' is set up and then we all feed into that grove with our playing. The millisecond differences that make a pop/jazz musician groove or sound flat are just as nuanced as the millisecond differences that make an orchestra sound very together, or messy. And again, one player being slightly off can completely destroy the groove of the whole ensemble.

It's easy for a pop/jazz musician to, to use my first example, play a clave over a fixed tempo because we are used to taking a rhythmic phrase over a set pulse and placing everything accurately bar after bar for many measures of unfaltering tempo. Most such musicians learn many complex rhythms over a fixed tempo and learn how they feel when repeating over and over and refine, refine and refine again till it sounds better and better, pushing and pulling beats to create a particular groove, including all sorts of idiomatic conventions of 'how to make it lazy' or 'how to make it pushy' to give the music a particular feel.

When you eg. hire a classical player to play over a pop record they may not have this library/muscle memory of repetitive bars with an exact groove feel for each one, they may play looser or tighter, or not respond to eg. where the drummer is framing the rhythm in a particular way.

But again, place a funk musician in an orchestra playing eg. La Mer, and they would be LOST, it's EXTREMELY hard, I say this from experience.

So the trope of orchestral musicians having bad rhythm is very wrong, they have exceptional rhythm. But the set of circumstances playing in an orchestra compared to a funk jam is very different, and due to popular music being the widespread 'sound' they get unfairly labelled as having 'bad rhythm'.

Of course, good musicians of either area of music will quickly adapt and hear what's needed of them, some of the most impressive classical musicians I have heard can storm a jazz jam then wander off into the sunset while the houseband are still recovering. Much less often do I hear of a jazz musician mastering an orchestral situation with the same authority, in fact I'd say the first rehearsal for them is almost always a huge eye-opener.

So, maybe the question should be 'why are orchestral musicians so able to deal with very complex rhythms over a constantly changing tempo when jazz/pop musicians can't?'. I'm being a little inflammatory of course ;) The rhythmic skills of the pop/jazz musician could take a lifetime or more to master, but the same goes for the orchestral player. The simple answer is that they are very different skillsets.

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    Stick a jazz musician in Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Messaien)... Actually I wonder how well most would handle even Rite of Spring... Mar 25, 2023 at 2:14
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    @AlexanderWoo, Indeed. though I hope perhaps I am a case in point, in that I am very much a jazz player who has crossed the gap and managed to also do a decent job on the other side of the fence. Crossover in that direction is, too, possible but a huge amount of humility regarding the job in hand is needed!
    – OwenM
    Mar 25, 2023 at 2:34
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    @brilliant that too is an overgeneralization, of course. Swing is an element of style that most classical musicians don't learn, but some will have done so and others will have grown up with it. The chance of an entire orchestra having done so, of course, is infinitesimal.
    – phoog
    Mar 25, 2023 at 14:07
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    If you believe Wikipedia, says en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_(jazz_performance_style) "Certain music of the Baroque and Classical era is played using notes inégales, which is analogous to swing"
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 26, 2023 at 6:59
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    If you want to hear how jazz musicians handle The Rite of Spring, take a listen to the album by the jazz trio The Bad Plus. Mar 27, 2023 at 18:46
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Hm, it is a complicated topic. Keep in mind that rhythmically aligning an orchestra on a stage is already significantly harder than rhythmically aligning three people in close proximity. The larger your ensemble becomes, the harder it becomes to do complex rhythmic alignments. Nevertheless especially 20th century composition often come with incredible rhythmic complexity. This then requires a really professional orchestra to play.

On the other hand most Jazz players do not really play rhythmically complex stuff. The default setting of Jazz is a plain 4/4 time, mostly keeping to the beat. Consider this: The Dave-Brubeck-Quartett is famed for making odd time signatures a thing in Jazz with Time Out in 1959 (and these are still not rhythmically complex!). Meanwhile we have Stravinsky’s Sacre in 1913.

Jazz is really not as harmonically and rhythmically complex as people make it out to be. And modern classical music can be quite challenging in these regards.

Of course one additional difference it that in Jazz style music you generally keep a rather constant time, while in many kinds of classical music rubato and freedom of time is an important element of expression and style. So classical musicians can be somewhat imprecise in rhythm, but they can also be extreme precise.

Jazz players then often remark on a classical player’s inability to do Swing. Let’s ignore that the concept of Swing is significantly older than Jazz (c.f. Notes inégales). Now, the thing is: Jazz swing is a stylistic thing, so of course it requires some proficiency with the style. So it is a rather stupid measure for rhythmic ability. This would be like saying "Jazz players cannot do Musica ficta, so they are less tonally skilled than medieval music experts".

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Just some observations augmenting Owen‘s great answer.

Pick a book, e.g. a beginners book, or even Terefenko on Jazz. Visualize, e.g. by grabbing the number of pages, how much is spent on time and rhythm: it‘s a minor topic by this simple metrics. Which means: you‘ll get the basics, so let‘s move on to harmony and, in Terefenko’s book, structures.

Now, when focusing on mastering time amd time divisions, i.e. on drumming, you can easily find books with considerable number of pages, because … you‘ll go through so many ways of making time and its subdivisions audible.

E.g. take famous „Stick control“, where you practice both rhythms and hand changes, i.e. constant time, avoiding fluctuations in time and loudness. And the opposite, putting accents even in odd places. Or take books, dealing with polyrhythms on the drumset, like timing ratios between two of your limbs into 1:1 (standard), 1:2, 3:2, 5:3 and so on. Or odd meters, like 5/4 („Take five“, big part in „Dream of a samuray“), 7/4 („Money“) etc.

Taken as one book, you‘d easily outnumber by pages e.g. Terefenko.

What I try to illustrate is: rhythm is only taught and practiced so much. If you specialize on it, like drummers do, you‘ll get a different, deeper, more experienced understanding and feel of time, division of time and mastering of time. Similar to experience you build when focusing on and practicing harmonic relationships. Some of these rhythmic patterns may be intuitive, many will not.

With all this in mind, the TO‘s question or statement isn‘t a kind of „law of nature“. It merely reflects the musical journey of musicians, orchestras, bands etc. So it can change, i.e. even orchestras can swing irresistibly.

And like with the mentioned conductor, when you have one individual in place, which mastered time and helps the rest to synchronize … it will become wonderful music.

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Yes, we absolutely do. But European and American music are two different breeds.

Classical music, especially in the 19th century, does not follow a click-track. In a small ensemble we don't have a drummer — we keep in sync with each other, but we ebb and flow with the emotional demands of the music:

https://vid.puffyan.us/watch?v=D3NHm9OeHUY&list=PLBS4VpTglwoBdsxPWTx67HO0IvmM1-MKR&index=16

So it's important not to have a four-four pulse in the back of your head.

Also, let's be honest, we're not popular anymore. We're no longer asked to improvise and local orchestras are too unskilled or even just too small to play modern orchestral music. So the skill we do have atrophies. A jazz musician might study the greats, play at bars and nightclubs and every week, and his name might be John Williams.

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  • Isn't John Williams a classical guitarist?
    – Tim
    Mar 25, 2023 at 18:16
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    Maybe, but there's a John Williams that wrote the score for Star Wars too. :D Mar 25, 2023 at 18:18
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There's a certain truth in this idea. Pop/jazz music tends to rely on a 'groove'. 'Classical' (for want of a better description) is often concerned more with expressive phrasing. It's not that the players CAN'T play 'on the click', just that they often aren't required to.

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I hope that personal experience serves as an answer.

  1. I first learned guitar entirely by ear. I listened to tracks and after a while, I absorbed the rhythms and notes enough to reproduce them. Tricky rhythms just took longer.

  2. Later I went to music college. I learned all the theory. After retiring, many years later, I gave up performing for a number of reasons.

  3. As an outlet, I recently joined a club playing djembe drums. I found I had completely lost my ability to (a) pick up rhythms by ear, (b) to simply 'feel' the music and play without thinking of crotchets and quavers (c) to improvise according to what others were playing from moment to moment.

Now after a couple of years, I have reached a stage where I can deliberately forget all the theory while playing and play by feel instead. It is very liberating.

Conclusion

Many classical musicians are tied to the notes. If they are good enough and experienced enough they will be able to read complicated rhythms very rapidly. However they may not easily feel the rhythm. For that reason, their performance of non-classical music can sound stilted.

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As already mentioned it is a many faceted area.

In my experience one of the differences between classical music and jazz is what we tend to recognize of as the "groove", the way the players create a swinging tempo.

This "groove" is not always there when played by classically schooled musicians. The swing sort of falls flat into more of marsch beat.

In my humble experience this is due to the classical musicians playing the music more exact: more exact rythm and more together on the beats. The groove in my experience comes from the swing occuring when the musicisians plays "off-beat", in many cases the drums and rythms instruments play on the beat while the melody is played behind the beat (slightly delayed). This creates the tension that we feel as a swinging music.

Now, jazz musician train this beat from kindergarten, classical musicians train playing exact from there young age. Listen to stuff that classical musicians do play and come back saying that they cannot play rythmical stuff. Currently I am rehearsing Stravinski Rite of Spring -- those rythms are quite complicated.

So the answer is no.

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I'm just an amateur musician, but I'll risk adding my thoughts to the discussion:

I think the whole "classical musicians are not rythimcal"-idea rests on the very false assumption that classical music is any less rythmical than jazz (or pop, or what have you). Classical music is of course a very wide topic, but at least very considerable parts of standard classical reportoire is very rythimcal, and indeed, "groovy".

As an example, my local choir performed Mozart's Requiem this weekend. One of the fugues, "Quam olim Abrahae", contains all kinds of rythmical patterns, with syncopations, off-beat accents, different rythmical patterns intertwining each other etc. A non-rythimcal musician would surely get lost rather quickly. And the groove of this particular piece is as strong as any modern piece I've heard!

IMHO, classical music can be as groovy, or groovier, than modern music. But since modern music (jazz, pop etc) is so reliant on drums, most people automatically think those kinds of music are more rythmical. But IMHO it's the complete opposite: Quam olim Abrahae is so intensely groovy, that Mozart didn't even have to use drums to get the groove going!

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