When performing music solo on guitar (and singing) for an audience, I have noticed that the audience is very tolerant when I miss a chord or mess up a lick. Often they don't even notice.

But if I get my timing off on the rhythm and miss a beat, it totally kills the vibe. The audience may be tapping their toes, nodding their head, clapping their hands, smiling, and I can tell they are really getting in to the music. But the second I come in half a beat late on a chord change, I totally lose the audience. They stop nodding, tapping, clapping - they even stop smiling.

Even worse, it's very difficult to get them back into it on the next song. It's like they are saying "I'm not falling for that trick again!"

What is it about keeping the correct tempo (perfect time) that makes it seemingly more important to an audience than singing or playing the right notes?

  • Anything off by more than 10 - 20 ms is pretty obviously not sounding simultaneous to anyone with ears, but to have a sense of when there are unintentional beat frequencies present due to a bad note in ensemble playing usually requires a trained ear. Psychoacoustically one kind of mistake is more easily detected than the other. But that doesn't explain why the timing is so critical - hence comment and not answer. Dec 10, 2015 at 20:09
  • I don't have time for a full answer, but I hope someone mentions brain wave entrainment: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entrainment_%28biomusicology%29 Dec 11, 2015 at 2:12

3 Answers 3


If you establish the rhythm as constant and repetitive then the audience can easily grab onto that and when that constant is disrupted it's like yanking the rug out from underneath their feet. However, if you were playing a piece that was free-flowing in tempo so there wasn't a constant pulse to latch onto then the audience would likely be more oblivious and forgiving to accidental timing errors.

A bad note is temporary and it's gone in an instant, so you can easily recover from a bad note. However, if you loose that initial pulse then you may not be able to get back to it and the audience will have to "re-sync" so to speak to get your new pulse. If you missed a beat and were able to recover right back to the original pulse, then this wouldn't be as disruptive as loosing the pulse entirely.

Jojo Mayer is an example of a drummer who is great at deliberately messing with the time and then "fixing it" joining right back in with where the original pulse was. When done deliberately rhythmic dissonance and resolution can be very effective and sounds amazing. Here is a clinic Jojo did where he responded to a question about changing meters while still keeping it all together and knowing where the pulse is. Jojo talks about polyrhythmic playing while omitting the original pulse...and it really messes with your head in the best way possible. lol


If your audience is getting into the song and dancing (even 'dancing' in a low key way, like toe tapping / clapping), and you mess up the rhythm, you embarrass them - they suddenly look (and feel, mentally) out of time, relative to you. You've betrayed them! Shall we trust you again? Hmmm...

I imagine it might be similar if you got an audience to sing along, and then played a chord that made their singing seem very out of tune - they'd feel foolish and the emotional impact would act as a barrier to them getting into it again. However, if they were only dancing or toe tapping, the wrong note wouldn't mess with what they were doing, so it's much less of a big deal.

So although there may well be some senses in which rhythm is fundamentally more important than melodic or harmonic considerations in some contexts, I suspect that what you've observed may just be the fact that many live audiences tend to 'get into' the music rhythmically more than they do harmonically/melodically. This is even more the case when the song is unfamiliar to them, as the rhythm is likely to be much more predictable than the melody or chord progression.


This is a difficult and subtle question the deals largely with cognitive issues.

If you accept that music is a language that we interpret, then I would suggest that consistency helps us to comprehend and understand the musical content. Suppose, for example, that while speaking to you, I articulate each third word as separate syllables. This would alter the rhythm of my speech and make it more difficult for you to comprehend my intended meaning.

In most respects, our cognitive methods demand consistency as a prerequisite for comprehension. We have to learn how to model our environment mentally. New born children experience visual and auditory sensations very differently than those who have learned how to make sense of all of the different shapes, colours, and sounds. Even as an adult, novel perceptions can be confusing and jarring. Having learnt one method of comprehension, we are generally reluctant to learn others. Our spoken word has a consistent rhythm, and so it is natural to communicate musically in a similar way.

Having said all of that, in the hands of a creative composer, novelty and inconsistency of rhythm can produce exciting and enjoyable effects.

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