Do you struggle with finding the pulse of a favorite song, trying to figure out a drumbeat for your mix, or notating a complex rhythm?
The Get Rhythm series will help you develop your rhythmic skills using ear training and musicianship exercises meant to help everyone from a beginning music student to a seasoned professional.
Whether you enjoy playing by ear, mixing down beats, or songwriting, learning how to develop your rhythmic skills will help you reach the next level of musicianship.
Here’s what you’ll learn in Get Rhythm:
- Find the steady beat in a song
- Practice keeping a beat with rhythm exercises
- Basic music theory for rhythm
- Recognize common rhythms in rock, jazz, Latin music, and more
- Learn how to count complex meters and rhythms
- Practice rhythm ear training in a fun way
After reading and practising with the Get Rhythm Series you will have the groundwork to develop your rhythmic music skills, easy exercises that you can practice on your own or with a friend, and an understanding of rhythm, pulse, and meter.
Let’s get started!
What is “the pulse”?
If you ever listen to a catchy dance beat, salsa, or rock with steady bass drum jamming away, you have probably found yourself tapping your toe or nodding your head in rhythm. Maybe you have clapped along with your favorite band in concert or shaken your body to a jazzy swing beat. That constant periodic beat is the pulse of the song.
Listen to this drumbeat. Can you tap the pulse?
Once you master this you should be able to start hearing the pulse behind real drumbeats in music.
How to Hear the Pulse
When you listen to a popular song, you can often find the pulse in the lower instruments of the song. For example, the drummer might be hitting the bass drum on all four beats, the pianist could be comping chords in 4/4 time, or there could be a steady walking bass line that helps you easily identify the beat.
In this popular tune with the snazzy dance moves it’s easy to hear the synthesized pulse on beats 1-2-3-4.
In this popular tune, the bass drum plays a steady slow pulse through most of the song at 86 BPM.
60 BPM means 60 beats in each minute, or 1 beat per second. 120 BPM would be twice as fast: 120 beats in each minute or 2 per second.
3. Walking Blues Line: Steady Pulse in 4/4 Time
Listen to this example. It is easy to find the pulse because the rhythm of the walking bass line falls on each beat in 4/4 time. You can count this out loud as 1-2-3-4. Listen to the example once, watch the rhythmic notation, and then try tapping out the beat. If you play an instrument, try to play along.
Here are some exercises you can use to practice your rhythm listening skills in a fun, musical way.
Ear Training Exercise 1: Listen to the Radio
In this simple exercise, turn on Spotify or Pandora and listen to your favorite mainstream tunes. As you listen, close your eyes and try to hear the constant beat of the song. When you are ready, tap your toe to the pulse that you feel or lightly clap your hands on every beat.
If you are comfortable with the rhythms, try to find where the first beat of each measure falls and determine the beat.
Try it with this track, La La La by Shakira:
Ear Training Exercise 2: Listen with a buddy
After playing along to the radio, find a friend and try testing out your rhythmic skills by finding the beat to these tunes that have more variety. Listen to the song. Sit next to your rhythm buddy. Play the tune. Close your eyes and concentrate on the rhythm. Have your friend tap the pulse on your shoulder gently to help you internalize the beat. Tap your toe along with the rhythm.
Notice where you and your friend might differ in your tapping. Depending on your musical experiences, you or your friend might have a tendency to rush the beat or fall behind.
Pro Tip: Don’t Be a Rush Puppy
When I was a teen in drumline years ago, my nickname was “Rush Puppy” because my entirely energetic self would get hyper-adrenalized when playing a drum solo. I would play faster and faster, leading to more mistakes and a not-so-happy band director. Even now, as a seasoned percussionist, I have to be aware of my tendency to rush the beat when I play live.
Keeping a steady pulse is extremely important if you are the drummer, pianist, guitarist or bass player and relied upon to keep a steady rhythm. But that doesn’t mean that vocalists and other instrumentalists are let off the hook. For a number of reasons, vocalists have a tendency to slow down when singing, for example because they are trying to properly sing the lyrics in a small space of time. Drummers are notorious for rushing the beat, not surprising given the rush of adrenaline a drummer feels as he or she engages the full body in music mayhem. A pianist that is an accompanist is probably the most seasoned player when it comes to keeping a steady beat since they often have to balance the pulse with the ensemble’s changes in tempo. And conductors win the prize for “Pulse-Keeper MVP” because often their job depends on the ability to keep a steady pulse.
Now let’s look at two more exercises you can use to practice finding the beat. You will need:
- A Metronome
- Drum sticks (or a handy substitute – tap with a finger if necessary!)
- If you do not have a metronome handy, use this online metronome to set the pulse:
Created with 123 Metronome
Ear Training Exercise 3: Tempos
Now let’s practice keeping a beat at 60BPM, 40BPM, 80BPM, 120BPM, and 180BPM.
- Set the tempo at 60 BPM on your metronome. This is the equivalent of one beat per second and a good tempo to start at since many people have a resting heart rate around 60 BPM.
- Use the drumsticks tap a single beat along with the metronome.
You might find that it is difficult to maintain a slow beat. If so, try subdividing by playing 8th notes, meaning two notes per beat. If you aren’t sure what that sounds like, set the tempo to 120 BPM to hear, then adjust back to 60 BPM.
After you have mastered playing along with the metronome for at least five minutes in time, practice at different tempos like 40BPM and 80 BPM. Use subdivisions for slower beats until you are comfortable playing single beats.
Ear Training Exercise 4: Listening Practice – Electronica “Broken”
Now that you have practiced playing a steady pulse and are comfortable at different tempos, try to play along with the electronica track below. Although the tempo is steady, there are variations in the rhythm, which make it more difficult to follow along.
- Practice your ear training skills by listening to the introduction.
- See if you can figure out the beat within the first 15 seconds of the piece.
- Play Broken once from beginning to end, listening for changes in the rhythm (notice the pulse stays the same).
- On the second listen, tap along with the drumsticks.
- Once you are comfortable, try playing only on beats 2 and 4.