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how to feel rhythm

Feeling Rhythm is imperative for any singer

You might find that understanding or reading music, or singing the song, i.e. the actual notes, isn’t the major problem. For many singers, rhythm is the main issue. It’s easy to get lost, hard to find the accent of the beat and it’s generally all a mystery.

This is particularly true if the performance is sounding “flat”, i.e. no emotion behind the song. Feeling the rhythm as you sing also helps enormously with:

1. Phrasing, i.e. feeling your own internal rhythm
2. Which in turn helps you find your own voice
3. Good phrasing. This stops the performance from feeling too uniform, thus getting boring, i.e. if it’s a repetitive song, singing everything the same.

Feeling rhythm is as much of a learned response as actually singing the song, and just as important. Once again, it’s something that you have to work at, so it becomes part of the emotional memory of the body. In other words, you have to learn feel it, not think it. Over time feeling time becomes second nature.

And “having good time”, i.e. singing in time and with a good feel, is also just as important as good breathing technique and singing in tune and pitch. You always know where you are in the song for one thing (at the beginning of the verse or about to sing the chorus for example), and on a deeper level you can play with the song and give your performance greater depth and subtlety.

If you find rhythm is a big problem then help is always at hand. You can learn to be in time, just as you can learn to sing in pitch with good tone.

The first practical thing to do is tap your foot, or a part of your body, in time to the music as you’re singing. If the song’s in 4/4, the most common Western time signature, just count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” (if you have no knowledge of music, or how to read it, then I suggest that you also read the articles “How Music Is Constructed” and “How To Read Music”. Just the basics, but it should help to shed some light on the subject).

Try to feel the first beat of the bar, what musicians call, strangely, “1“. Listen to the song and try to hear the rhythm. There’s usually an accent on the first beat of the bar, often with the bass drum or bass guitar if it’s, for example, a track with the classic line up of drums, bass and guitar or piano.

Rhythm And Rhythm Notation

Understanding how syncopation, i.e. rhythm, is created and notated can also help tremendously when learning to feel time.

As I mentioned in the other theory articles, music is extremely mathematical. And rhythm plays a great part of that equation. We’ve looked at how music is broken down into bars, and how they make up the structure of a song in the aforementioned article “How To Read Music”. To re-cap, here’s a breakdown of the variations of notes one might expect in music:

We start with a Breve. Two whole notes, 8 beats:

A breve

A breve

Then a semibreve, or whole note. 4 beats. 1 note to a 4/4 bar:


To a minim, two beats in length, 2 to a 4/4 bar:


And a crotchet. One beat in length, four crotchets to a 4/4 bar:


And a quaver. 8 beats to a 4/4 bar:

2 quavers can also be notated as:2-Quavers

or a single quaver:


The stem can be drawn with the stem facing up or down, shown by the flag on the right hand side of the note, depending on the path of the music.

Double the time of quavers are semiquavers, 16 beats to a bar:


The double line at the top shows it’s a semiquaver.

A single semiquaver looks like this:


The squiggly line after the notes in this diagram in a semiquaver rest (for more on rests see below).

To a demisemiquaver, the same as a semiquaver but 32 beats to the bar, shown with 3 notes to the tail instead of two.


Syncopation is physically created as soon as we move away from the regimented use of a note. We create syncopation in musical notation by using dots, ties, rests and triplets. Here’s a syncopation example. One bar intro ‘in time’ and then one bar of syncopated rhythm, shown below:


Hear The Bar Above

4 straight beats and then a crotchet, two quavers, a quaver rest, a quaver, a quaver rest, and a quaver.

(As a musical check note, you might see rhythm notated as a small ‘x’, with the tails etc the same as normal notes. A drummers part, for example).

However, we need to feel the beat we’re singing, even if we’re singing the song from sheet music. Some people have this ability naturally, and for others, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a learned response. The “emotion memory” of the body has to learn to count, so that you always know where you are in the song and where the beginning of the next bar is.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Get to grips with the rhythm: clap some different rhythms. Start easy and then get more complicated.

First in straight4/4 time: first crotchets, then quavers, then semiquavers :

Clap along to straight crotchets, then quavers then semiquavers

2. Now clap on 1 and 3, i.e. the 1st and 3rd beats of a bar:

Clap along to 1 and 3

3. Now every 2nd and 4th beat, called, even more spookily, “2 and 4″. In 4/4 time, the 2 and 4 accent is used time and again. Getting to feel this rhythm is particularly useful:

Clap along to 2 and 4

Now clap the same thing to a 4/4 metronomic beat:

Click track

Once you feel you have it, experiment with how, you personally, feel the beat. Accenting the 2 and the 4, are you right in the center of the beat, or behind it? Or naturally ahead? In Jazz, having a loose, groovy feel to this rhythm is called “swinging”. Pop music is generally more on the beat, i.e. in the center. Rock can be both. Indie can be both but tends to be more on the loose side. Soul can be both but is best, for me, when it’s behind the beat. If you listen for it, you can usually hear it in how the drums and bass work with each other. Pop music tends to be more in the center because not only does the music seem to demand it (and it wants you to dance, goddammit!), but is quite often a programmed loop, quantized (keeping it to a regular, exact, beat) and programmed in. So the music feels more regimented, and thus in the center. Of course, you can allow for this in the programming, but when something is played live its always going to breathe better. However, sometimes the exact beat makes for some very interesting textures within a song, so once again there is never any real hard and fast rule with song making.

4. Chose a tune you like that’s relatively simple, where you can hear the instruments clearly. It being the rug that ties the room together, I’m going to stick with Amazing Grace for the moment, using the (instrumental) 4/4 soul version from the How To Ad-Lib article as a demonstration. Try clapping along to the track below:


There’s a very loose feel to this version. Try to clap along on the 2 and 4 and feel the loose rhythm in your body. Try dancing and clapping – even if it’s just tapping a foot.

And few other things to try:

1. Mark the 4/4 time and try to also accent the first beat of every bar. Then do the same thing with the second, third and fourth.

2. Now get used to counting in double time: ’1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and’. This makes it much easier to feel the rhythm, and also get those little accents that are just in-between the beat etc.

3. Try mixing up the 1 and the 3 and the 2 and the 4. 2 bar of 2 and 4 and then 2 of 1 and 3 etc.

4. Now try doing the same thing but put in the odd accent on the different notes in the bar as well, for example clapping on the 1 and 3 and 4.

5. Now try doing the same as in 4. above, while counting 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 at the same time.

6. Now try doing the same as the above while moving in rhythm. Once again, even if it’s tapping a toe!

7. And when you feel you have the basics down, try clapping a solo, like a drummer. Mix up the time etc, but, mainly, try and hear the music and how you’re interacting with it. Feel the rhythm, and trust your instincts.

8. It needn’t be that complicated, but try and make the phrases you clap relate to each other, like you’re telling a story.

9. And start to experiment with where you come in on the bar. Starting on a pickup beat into a bar (one and two and three and four and) sounds much hipper than right on the beat of one, for example.

If you’re still really stuck, try and learn a solo by ear. It’s amazing what the subconscious retains from concentrating that hard! Ella Fitzgerald is a good one to try. You’ll pick up on her phrasing, and she’s always clear and spot on with her timing.

Here’s a clapping example:

Clapping Example 1

And a slightly harder one (listen out for the triplets):

Clapping Example 2

By now, you’re hopefully listening to and hearing music very differently, so now might be the time to go back and clap along to the


‘ad-libbing’, i.e. making stuff up, and see if it’s made a difference. And also remember, the spaces in between, the rests, are just as important as the notes you clap, so it can be very simple.

In fact, you’ll find that you have a different feel and perception of the “time” when you come back to singing a song.

If you really found the above exercises hard, start out with even simpler rhythms, then gradually make them more and more intricate. Try interweaving them so that they tell a story, are in some way related to each other, even for just a couple of bars.

5. Now let’s sing the song. Read the lyrics like a poem. Try to connect with the feeling of the song through your heart and diaphragm, a relaxed diaphragm being the doorway to your intuition and emotion.

6. Now sing the song to the instrumental track above, and see if it’s made any difference.

Here’s an example of the soul-type version with vocals for reference:


I mentioned in the clapping section above that the spaces in between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves. By the same token, the same applies when singing a song.

(There’s also a folk, jazz and country version to try, which you can find in the ‘How To Ad-Lib, Or Improvise’ article).

A Few More Tips

If you tried the above to no avail, then here are a few more tips that might be helpful:

1. If we imagine that the diaphragm is not only just the breathing instrument of the voice, but also where the feeling comes from, the solar plexus is the center of the emotion of the song. Listen to your instinct from there. It’ll tell you what to do. If it tells you to move your body in a different way, then try it out. If it feels wrong, then you are on the way to doing it the right way. If it feels right, odds on you’re truly expressing the song. It’s the whole body expressing the song, balanced, that gets real and lasting results. If you’re voice is centered, and you’re using your core energy, it’s OK to move around because you know where you’re going back to, where your internal spirit level is.

2. A singer is, at best, part of the whole band. Music is always a sum of the parts put together to make: music. So listen to the other musicians, especially if you’re in a band. If you’re singing karaoke, try to hear the different instruments within the song, and how the piece is “put together”. Especially how the rhythm of the song works with the chords. See if you can hear the difference between the musicians. And how they interact with one another. Hear the bass line. Hear the feel of the drums – is the drummer or the rhythm track behind the beat, in the center, or ahead? Hear if the drum and bass are playing together, and are “locked in” or “tight”, daddio, i.e. is the rhythm section tight?

3. As I mentioned earlier, you can take this further and learn a few solos (see the section below, “Learning to Ad-Lib, or Improvise”).

4. Record yourself. What we hear in our heads is often not what an audience hears. I’ve often found that you can “get it” when you hear what you’re truly doing, or at least know the next step forward.

5. Choose songs that you love, and that mean something to you personally. Let the audience come to you, rather than you focusing solely on them and what they might be thinking of you. This always results in losing focus and confidence. And last but not least, commit to the song completely. You then stay in the meaning of the song while staying centered.

By ‘commit to the song’, I mean ‘make the decision to focus purely on what you’re doing here and now, and not judge it’. Easier said than done, but this can be a learned response as much as anything else. And the decision has to come from you: make the decision that the whole of your body be connected to the song. The first line of the chain is to feel the song in the center of your body, like a ball the size of your fist behind your diaphragm (for me it’s a white one which stops it getting tense, but that is of course arbitrary). The next action is to relax the diaphragm as you breathe in, and so on up the chain until the note comes out of your mouth. The decision to commit to the song, and to the meaning of the song, is made before you’ve even taken a breath.

6. In other words, once you’ve tried the technical stuff, forget it and surrender to the song, the feeling and story of the song. See if the body takes over, now that you’ve started to re-program it, and if you’re singing the song differently as your focus changes.

Learning to Ad-Lib, or Improvise

If you found the exercises in the “Rhythm And Rhythm Notation” section useful, as I mentioned above, then you can take this idea further and learn some jazz solos. Ah! you might be thinking. She’s sung a lot of jazz. I hate jazz, it’s so far away from the music I likeĀ. In which case, of course, don’t do it. But for the curious, I’ve tried this out with quite a few students, and it’s always been helpful. It helps amazingly with learning to build a song through phrasing, and to ad-lib at the end of a tune (whatever genre). If you noticed a difference doing the clapping exercises in the section above, then learning to put notes to the syncopation is the next logical step. The article “How to Ad-lib, or Improvise” deals with the basics of these issues. Most modern genre music is either directly related to the blues, or a watered down version of Jazz and European harmony. So there’s an element of jazz in there, even if it’s just an F7 chord! When learning to improvise, obviously, start easy. Try some simple blues licks for starters. Sometimes, that’s all you need. If you’re trying to find your own voice, or have a real problem with rhythm (or any number of reasons in between), then try something medium, then really hard, i.e. build up to it. Ad-libbing is like learning a different language. It might seem like a Herculean task, but in my experience, once again it can be really fun.

If improvising just isn’t your thing, then once again just try clapping along to one of your favorite songs. Listen to the rhythm, the instruments and how they all fit together. Try to isolate them and hear how everything works together.

Ending A Song

Lastly, you might have the time down, but ending the song is causing all sorts of problems. If you’re singing with a band and have the luxury of practice, then first of all work out what you’re going to do. Most endings are pretty obvious. Three times round the last phrase, a pause and then a chord or two for a ballad, for example. This is easier with well-known modern genre songs, because everyone knows the famous version, or has the sheet music in front of them, and you play and sing it like the record. So just learn what the original singer did first of all (not ideal, obviously, since you want to sing any song in your own way. Once you’ve learnt the original, you can experiment with different endings etc). The issues with how to end a song usually come in the genres of rock, blues, jazz and folk. With rock, you usually rehearse or have written the song, or you have the original singer once again (the article “How To Lead A Band, How To Count In And End A Tune” might be useful here). If you’re in a live situation, are at the end of the song and don’t know what to do, look at the keyboard player or guitar player (they’re at the front of the stage, usually, so everyone can see them), and follow their direction. A downward motion with the hand usually means a chord, or else they’ll make a movement like “end of song” (a finger slashed across the neck being a popular sign). And if you trust your instinct, you can usually tell where the tune is headed, and hear as the chords are resolving to an end of the song. And if not, then watch that keyboard or guitar player. So follow the band, and once again resist the temptation to just go for it and be hopelessly wrong, i.e. the band knows how to finish the song, so follow their lead. If you know the arrangement and feel confident, then take charge and give the signals to end the song.

Many thanks to:

Pianist, composer and arranger Terry Disley for playing and arranging the soul version of Amazing Grace



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