Without rhythm, music would be boring. Rhythm makes a piece of music interesting, and using it correctly allows the musician to put a bit of themselves into the composition.
The concept of rhythm becomes extremely important when playing jazz music. So, in this article, we’re going to tale about rhythmic pattern in jazz and why it’s so important to understand.
What is Rhythm?
When you think of music, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the notes and chords played, or the melody and harmony?
These are all part of the language of music.
But what music is to most people is a feeling. It’s the beat, how the music moves you, and the feelings you get from listening to it. It’s what makes you tap your feet, move your body while sitting in a chair, or break out in full dance on the floor.
It’s the rhythm. And in the words of the indie pop duo Client Liaison, sometimes you just gotta “feed the rhythm inside!”
But what is rhythm? The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives multiple definitions of rhythm. The definition specifically aimed at the meaning of rhythm regarding music is the following:
“The aspect of music comprising all the elements (such as accent, meter, and tempo) that relate to forward movement.”
Let’s break this definition down and understand how this applies to jazz music.
What is Meter?
Music is comprised of many elements, one of the most important being the meter. When a pianist sits down to play a piece of music, the first thing they look at is the meter, or time signature. The time signature tells us how to group the beats together.
Musical notation breaks a song into measures, and the time signature allows the player to know how many “beats” are in each measure; this is the top number in the signature. The bottom number tells us how many beats make one whole note in a measure.
In the case of a 4/4-time signature, which is the most common, we know that there are four beats in a measure, and that each beat would be a quarter note (or ¼ of the measure).
How to Count the Beat
One of the first things piano students learn is how to count the beats. Often teachers use a metronome to allow the student to hear the beats. Then they teach you how to count the notes in a measure by using those beats.
For example, if there are four quarter notes in the measure, you would count:
If there are eight eighth notes in the measure, you would count:
The measure still adds up to four beats, but since we know that four beats equal four quarter notes, we can add the “&” when counting eighth notes, because each eighth note is one half of a quarter note.
What is Syncopation?
Now that we know how to count the beats in a song, we can figure out how jazz piano players use alternative rhythms to give the music feeling.
If someone sets down a piece of classical music in front of you with a 4/4-time signature, and there are four quarter notes in the first measure, playing those beats is a straightforward count of 1-2-3-4. Each note is the same length as the one before it and the one after it.
When classical composers want to change the rhythm in a measure, they use varying notes and different methods of notation to tell the pianist how the rhythm might change. This is not always so when it comes to jazz music, which often incorporates what is known as syncopation.
Syncopation describes what happens when you vary the accent or stress on a particular beat. You wind up with phrasing that puts those accents where they wouldn’t occur normally. In most traditional styles of music, the accent is on the first and third beat of a phrase. Jazz music tends to put this accent on the second and fourth beat.
What is “Swing?”
Another aspect of jazz rhythm involves grouping the beats in a measure unevenly. For example, we mentioned before that a typical 4/4-time signature with four quarter notes would be counted as 1-2-3-4.
With jazz music, this count is altered depending on the style or feel that the musician wants. Playing these beats unevenly gives the music “swing.”
Often, a piece of jazz music will have an added instruction written at the top of the music that tells the musician which style to use when playing. For instance, it might just say “swing” at the top. Or it might say nothing because jazz composers expect experienced players to understand the music should be played with a swing rhythm.
Notating Rhythms in Jazz
So why don’t jazz composers notate the music how they want you to play it? There are a few reasons for this.
First, a piece of jazz music written in a swing style would be very complicated and hard to read. Writing it with basic beats allows the musician to read it more easily.
Second, you can take a piece of jazz music and play it in any rhythm style. It’s up to the musician what rhythm style they use, depending on what feeling or emotion they are trying to evoke in the listener. Maybe you want to play it in the ballad style or give it a Latin groove. Rhythm allows the musician freedom to put their influence on the music, and use that influence to affect the listener.
You can play a jazz song on the piano exactly as it’s written, but it’s going to sound a bit boring. Notice that when the professionals play the same piece of music, it sounds very different. This is because professionals use “swing” to make the music more interesting.
There are many different styles of jazz rhythm, and listing them all here would be difficult. Many rhythmic styles are based on the genre of jazz that they stem from, or from the jazz musicians who made them popular. The four listed here are the most common rhythms you will encounter in jazz music.
The swing style originated in the 1930s and was synonymous with the dance craze happening at that time. Swinging refers to grouping notes together in uneven pairs. Instead of having a group of evenly distributed notes in a phrase, a swing style would have a long group of notes at the start of the phrase, and another group at the end that is shorter.
When you play this style, you can feel how the music “swings” from one grouping to the next.
Latin jazz is a style with a unique rhythm pattern, characterized by grouping notes together and putting the emphasis at the end of the group. For example, in a 4/4 time signature with eighth notes in the phrase, the emphasis would be on the & beat following the 2 and 4.
This style is usually played at a medium, steady tempo.
This style became popular in the 1940s and is more complex than the swing style. The name be-bop comes from the rhythm itself, which often features improvised beats within a measure, and then ends the phrase with a distinctive two-note grouping.
If you listen, you can almost hear the “be-bop” at the end of each phrase.
Ballad-style jazz is characterized as having a slow tempo. This slower pacing gives the musician the freedom to improvise and experiment with different rhythms within each phrase.
The ballad rhythm can still swing, but the slower tempo makes it less noticeable.
What is “Comping?”
Jazz music can be played by one musician, on a single instrument. Or, it could be performed by an ensemble, which can be as few as three musicians, or even ten or more playing together. T
he rhythms used when playing in a group are very important. When multiple musicians and instruments play a piece together, everyone needs to be on the same page for the music to sound right.
The term “comping” describes playing the harmony of a song while other musicians play the melody. Jazz music involves the heavy use of solo work, meaning the piano player will have to keep a beat and a rhythm going while other musicians take turns playing a solo.
Some rhythm styles are designed to help musicians know what to play when “comping.” This allows someone to call out a specific style before playing a piece, and jazz musicians will know how to stay inside a specific rhythm to help keep cohesion in the sound.
Jazz music can be intimidating for new piano players, and jazz theory can seem overwhelming at first. But remember, music is supposed to make you feel a certain way. The use of rhythms and rhythmic patterns in jazz is one method musicians use to accomplish this.
If you are a student just beginning your study of jazz piano, incorporating different rhythms in your playing will help you understand how to use music to make the listener feel what you’re playing, rather than just hearing it.