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I'm playing for around 10 years now and I'm definitely not a beginner. Still, my intuitive understanding of new rhythms is very poor.

I can learn to play nearly every rhythm if I have enough time. This is a very analytical process like breaking everything down in small blocks, practice them super slow and connect them.

Even this works it's not a useful approach if someone shows you a new song and ask you to play a backing for a singer. It doesn't has to be perfect but it should catch the idea of the rhythm of the song. Very often I must respond with: Sorry, I have to practice this first.

Other musicians in my circle of acquaintances don't have this problem. They don't care a lot about the theory behind it, they just start playing and it sounds good. How do I reach this point? Of course I asked them but I never got a satisfying answer, they just do it without thinking about it.

I'm already doing a lot of these classic rhythm exercises like pyramid, shifting accents, syncopation, ... with a metronome. And of course this helps but this alone does not take me to point where I want to go.

Any tips?

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  • Do you already have straight 8th notes and straight quarter notes down intuitively? How about running dotted 8th -> 16th note patterns?
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 3 at 20:20
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    Does this answer your question? Exercises to get beter at rhythm (piano). And numerous other questions on leaning rhythm.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 3 at 20:26
  • Actually, how often have you done those sight reading clapping ear test exercises? They're standard fare in piano lessons or at least preparing for Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) exams. (They had me sight reading and clapping 8th-note triplets and regular 8th notes in the same exercise by Grade 10.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 3 at 20:28
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    Note that "playing for 10 years" is not that much. It depends on how those 10 years were spent in studying and education. It would help to know how you approached playing, if you ever had any theory course (with/without teacher, in a class or individually), how your instrument training evolved along with the theoretical comprehension (and I don't mean about the "rules" and pure notions of music theory) and, not less important, at what age you started. Most of the times, this kind of problems are caused by inappropriate education in early years, failing to address primary elements of music » Feb 4 at 23:04
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    I think it would help if you gave an example of a rhythm that would be difficult for you.. A real case, something recent. May 14 at 12:56

4 Answers 4

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There are no shortcuts:

  • Practice sight reading rhythms. There are books and web sites available for sight reading practice.
  • Learn a lot of rhythms. Do a web search for something like "rhythms every drummer should know" and learn to strum the results on guitar. You’ll have to count and subdivide and use a metronome to get them right before you can just feel them.
  • Listen to a lot of music that has percussion and popular rhythms in it. The previous web search should also lead you to examples and names of rhythms to search for.

Be aware that if you don’t recognize a rhythm on the page you’ll have to sight read it to hear it and then get in the groove of it. Until or unless you can audiate a rhythm before you play (sight reading practice will help with this), you’ll have to get the groove from the first few times you play it and try to settle in as fast as possible.

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    Thanks for your answer but I'm not looking for shortcuts, I'm looking for a different (additional) approach. Like I said, I know multiple musicians which are not able to sight read at all nor do any rhythm exercise on a regular base but can still adapt rhythms super fast. So there has to be another way of doing this.
    – flappix
    Feb 4 at 12:44
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    @flappix Ok if you don’t like my answer that’s fine. I’m a guitarist who can just look at some chords and get the rhythm and play and sing and direct the rest of the band all at the same time and this is how I learned to do all that so I thought maybe it would help you. Have you tried asking these other people how they learned to do it? Feb 4 at 13:45
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    Yes, like I wrote in the initial post. They tell me something like "Dont think about it, dont count it, just feel it." Unfortunately I dont feel it.
    – flappix
    Feb 4 at 14:00
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    @flappix I hope someone else posts an answer you like. The advice to “don’t think about it” is one of the shortcuts I was saying there isn’t. I wasn’t suggesting you are looking for a shortcut. Feb 4 at 14:08
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    @flappix Part 2 of his answer is to learn patterns. Part 1, sight reading is not about memorizing, it is about reacting and having to play something you don’t know on the spot, which ultimately helps in recognizing and playing unfamiliar rhythms quickly. As for part 3, I would add transcribing things you haven’t played before. I would also suggest listening to and playing along with recordings you like. Since you don’t have the ability to do it without thinking about it like your acquaintances your best choice is to work hard to know exactly what you’re doing. Feb 4 at 20:28
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ask you to play a backing for a singer ... Sorry, I have to practice this first. ... I'm already doing a lot of these classic rhythm exercises...point where I want to go.

It's hard to tell whether the issue is technical or psychological.

If you can take one of those rhythm exercise books, select a passage at random, and sight read it, then it's hard to see where the actual trouble is. If you can't actually do that kind of sight reading, then it seems clear the issue is continue with patient practice.

If your technique is good, then maybe there is something psychological going on, like "being stuck in your own head."

...a very analytical process like breaking everything down in small blocks...Other musicians...they just do it without thinking about it.

That approach makes sense, but are you also building a mental catalog of rhythm styles? I mean the style and cultural associations of rhythm. Some rhythm can be approached generically, small units like dotted versus straight eights, 3:2 polyrhythm, syncopated eights, etc. But then you have specific, culturally associated rhythms like tresillo, clave, reggae bubble, afrobeat, etc. which you can (should) internalize on a larger scale than beat sized units.

Some people, like myself, are analytical. Telling people like us "don't over think it" usually is not helpful. We need to know when to analyze and when to integrate. Maybe you need to consider the holistic side of rhythm. From a drummer's perspective it's the difference between "eighths on the hi-hat, snare on the beat, kick on 1 and the up beats of 3 and 4" versus "motown". The former is the analytic description, the latter is the holistic groove that you can just do without thinking about it.

If someone says "get our of your head" or "just let go", and it isn't helpful advice, maybe a better way to deal with it is focusing on the higher level (meaning higher than the beat level) holistic aspect of rhythm, along with stylistic/cultural rhythm associations.

One final thought. My rhythm improved a lot when I practiced (piano) while counting the beat out loud. That takes advantage of some speech related neurological pathways as well as develop a feel for the various rhythm levels of beat subdivision, beat/meter, and phrasing. It's also not really analytical, but all about just doing, and getting that "in the pocket" feel.

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This is actually a very interesting topic with no straightforward answer. I think it is obvious that people differ a lot when it comes to perception of rhythm and what we vaguely describe as "feeling the rhythm". It is interesting how this capacity seems to be partly individual, partly cultural and a fair question of whether this type of "feel" can be somehow developed or improved in grown ups.

There is some interesting research in neuroscience:

https://www.psypost.org/the-neuroscience-of-groove-why-certain-rhythms-make-us-want-to-dance/

that seem to be pointing to what was always my intuition. A fellow musician who had a great rhythm feel once told me "never trust a drummer who can't dance". He also said once "I can tell how good the drummer is on TV just by looking at him drumming with the sound muted". Conversely I have a good friend who I'd been teaching guitar and he is really bad at rhythm. It is very interesting how when I try to tell him into using his body to keep the rhythm for him it is a very weird concept. Obviously he also hates dancing.

So it seems the way we feel the rhythm is very connected to our bodies motor systems and the desire to move, dance to the music. We all know that the rhythmic cultures are essentially a dancing cultures. We also know that some people are highly unresponsive to this type of triggers.

If you observe the best drummers or bass players literally all of them can be seen to "keep" the rhythm with their bodies and they can't resist expressing it as it supports keeping the groove going.

So the real question is can this capacity of "embracing your body as a time keeper" can be learned. There's no clear answer, can't find any solid research but I'd be very curious to find out if dance lessons could improve the situation.

Now to most important point - once the rhythm is actually felt, it could be the case that it is also understood on more visceral level and less analysis is required to memorize regular patterns. This is probably the part where other people just feel it any are not able to explain how they "acquired" this capacity.

We all love music but in many different ways and we are drawn more to some elements of music than others. I think people who get easily excited by great rhythms might naturally develop better capacity at memorizing and recalling the patterns on the spot

So in terms of tips - maybe start from taking note to what extent your body is currently the vehicle or the time keeper when playing music. If it isn't then see how can you force yourself to build up that excitement by trying to dance or move, by copying other people doing it. Based on my experiences with my friend it can feel extremely awkward and weird but as with many other things (like martial arts) a bit of blind repetition can go a long way with some time invested.

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    This seems like it's responding to a different question, "Why does it come easier to some people." And this answer points toward a useful answer to "how can I get better," which would be "try moving your body" (i.e. eurhythmics), but stops short of saying so clearly or elaborating on it. I'd suggest editing to give more details on how the OP might try this. May 14 at 17:15
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    Thanks for suggestion, I think you're right, I've updated the answer. I was a bit reluctant with the actual tips as this is all based more on intuition and experience that say established research, and also decided to write at least something pointing in the direction OP seems to be requesting based on the OP's comments on standard drills and practice suggestions
    – Jarek.D
    May 14 at 19:00
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get a little bongo drum or something similar and spend time on it. Helped me a lot. Also studying different rhythm patterns, for example clave.

ALternatively you could get a drum practice pad and do some basic drum exercises. Really not easy!

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