Rhythm, Beat, and Groove: What’s the Difference?

2011Symposium_1_2It all seems simple in the early grades. Beat is the steady pulse of the music, and rhythm is the changing durations of what is being sung or played. Using movement, students learn the difference between beat and rhythm by walking the beat while clapping the rhythm. Because they are not doing the same thing with their feet and hands, the point that they are not the same is easily made. The issue becomes more complicated when the students get older. Around age eleven, they develop their own musical preferences, and become more attached to the music of popular culture. With this change in how they relate to music and relate music to their peers, students begin talking about the beat in a different way. They use the word to describe the overall rhythmic affect on them that the music has; an understanding more accurately described as groove. Groove is the combined affect of beat and rhythm on the body; it is a word that describes how our body responds to music with movement. Labeling groove as beat glosses over rhythmic structure of music, making it almost certain that understandings of its component parts, that is rhythm, beat and meter, will be overlooked.

As music teachers, we are up against a misunderstanding brought about by common yet misleading usage of the thinking musicword beat. Part of the solution is to be sure our teaching goes beyond vocabulary, and includes application and experience. Defining beat as the steady pulse of the music is only engaging the intellect in learning the concept–it does not develop the deeper understanding that comes from experiencing the beat while being aware of what is being experienced, and manipulating the beat with creative and interpretive actions, which provides relevance and even deeper understanding. Here is how this could play out in a classroom. First, the teacher has taught the students what beat, rhythm and groove are, so that they can define each. This is the intellectual part of learning a concept, and must come first. Then the students might hear the music teacher play a repeated rhythm pattern–one which is easily recognized by the students. Then the teacher plays the same repeated rhythm pattern, but at a different tempo, and asks the students of the three elements, beat, rhythm, and groove, which one or ones have changed? The activity is then repeated, but with the students playing the pattern on body percussion or rhythm instruments. When ever either beat or rhythm changes, groove will be affected. Groove should not be confused with style. Funk is a style, not a groove. The groove of funk is the affect of the characteristic rhythms and beat of the funk style. That affect will always change when either rhythm or beat is changed, so groove can change even when style does not.

When a student says that a song has a beat that they like, it most likely is the groove they are referring to. Redirecting the conversation to groove opens up the opportunity to discover what combination of rhythm and beat created the groove that the student likes, and presents creative opportunities for students to explore tinkering with the rhythm and beat separately to alter the groove. Students tend to be deeply entrenched in a small number of rhythms that repeatedly occur in the music they listen to, so creating new rhythms that result in the same or similar groove helps widen their appreciation of music, and moves them from being music consumers to music creators, an important step in becoming educated musically. Students must come to understand that songwriters and composers have beat, rhythm and beat at their disposal to manipulate however they choose, and that the results of those creative decisions is a particular groove and/or style, and is very much related to the music creator’s expressive intent.

What Is Musical Ability?

2011Symposium_1_2What is musical ability? This question is not as easy to answer as first appears. It is tempting to define musical ability in terms of performance skills, and those are typically made manifest in public performances. Restricting a definition of musical ability to performance excludes non-performance musical behaviors, or musical behaviors that are needed to prepare a performance, but are not evident toan observer during a performance. A more inclusive definition was proposed by Hallam (2006), who found that subjects in a research project completed the phrase “musical ability is” with the following: expressing thought and feeling through sound, being able to understand and interpret the music, communication through music, responding to music, playing or singing, having a musical ear, listening and understanding, appreciation of music, creativity, evaluation skills, technical skills, composing or improvising, reading music, and knowledge about music. While some of these are primarily performance dependent, most are not. Musical ability is as much about the cognitive processes of understanding, responding and knowing as it is about performance.

Expressing though and feeling through sound could be performance, composing, improvising, or even using non-linguistic utterances such as staccato “ah, ah, ah” to express excitement or “ooh” to express empathy. Howard Gardner addressed this aspect of musical ability by including in his explanation of musical intelligence a sensitivity to rhythm and sounds in a person’s environment, and a preference for being taught with rhythmic speech. Those with musical ability take on a sonic flamboyance in the way they communicate that exceeds the norms of everyday communication.

Being able to understand and interpret music is as much for the listener/responder as it is for themusic consumer performer. Listeners become responders to music in part when they determine and respond to the expressive intents of the composer and performers, while performers determine the composer’s and their own expressive intent in preparing and giving a public performance. Understanding takes in this expressive and emotional aspect of music, but also includes cognitive activity that organizes the physically heard musical sounds into structures that make sense and that are consistent with cultural and stylistic norms.

Communication through music is primarily something performers do to an audience, but the audience is necessary for that communication to take place. There is a shared understanding of what is happening musically, and the effects it all has on those who hear it, that makes the performer’s communication through music successful. For example, the performer places emphasis on certain notes, and the listener uses those emphases to detect meter, and to perceive the expressive affect. Listeners who are fluent in the conventions of the music to which they are listening are using this aspect of their musical ability to make structural and emotional sense of the music. A listener continues to use this ability to respond to music. Response to music can be in many forms including movement, emotional, thematic, structural, and contextual. Performer respond to each other as they play or sing music, and each response has an effect on how all the others in the ensemble perform, thus shaping the performance.

Having a musical ear can also take on many forms. It may be that a listener recognizes a motif from another musical work in the one he or she is listening to, or it may be that a person can use an instrument to pick out the notes of a tune they have heard. People who can “name that tune” in just two or three notes have a good musical ear. It is worth noting that much of this particular ability comes from experience and an extensive repertoire of melodies committed to memory on which a person can draw to identify and connect with. People with a good musical ear are also highly sensitive to intonation and in tuneness, and may also have perfect pitch.

Evaluation skills is evidence of musical ability in performers who can use evaluation to refine and rehearse, of music critics who can judge the merits and shortcomings of a performance, and of listeners who can assess the quality of the musical work and the performance. A person evaluating also draws on knowledge about the music and performance. Knowledge about music includes cultural, social, historical, form, structure, performance practices and instrumentation, expectations, and expressiveness. Any one of these, or any combination, must be considered musical ability. Under this definition, virtually every student can be considered to have some form of musical ability, and none can justifiably be excluded from a school music program because of lack of talent. There ought to be opportunities for students to use their musical ability or abilities in whatever form they are present, within a school music program.

Music is the Ultimate Social Media

2011Symposium_1_2Today was the last day of music class for my 8th graders, who will be graduating tonight. Last class days are more laid back than other days. I began by showing them the segment from Disney’s Fantasia 2000 that sets the story of Noah’s Ark to the music of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. I though it would be fitting because in just a few hours, each of the students would be processing into the gym to the same music. When they heard the familiar music, many were excited and then they were interested to hear the rest of the music beyond the familiar part. After that video, I left the students to arrange themselves and find something to do on their own. I expected them to do something musical, but beyond that, it was up to them.

When it is up to them, my students usually do one of two musical things, and this time was no exception. They took out their phones and shared their favorite music with each other, or they formed a group at the piano and asked me to play their favorites. One of those favorites is the theme from Halloween. Many of the boys like playing it on the piano, and others always want to learn how, so this group occupied itself with playing the theme or teaching it to others. This group, the one at the piano, exemplifies an ideal music class. Students are engaged in self-directed learning, practicing, peer and self evaluating their attempts, refining, and finally presenting their accomplishment. I became involved when they did not know how to play the transposed occurrences of the theme, and when they added an extra beat to the right hand part, but otherwise, they worked on their own, and accomplished a good amount of proficiency and improvement.

The other group, the one listening to and sharing music, also exemplifies an ideal music class activity. Music is highly personal with teens. I was reminded of this when I asked my daughter if she wanted to connect her iPod to the outdoor sound system I had set up for her graduation party. She did not want to use her music, and said that music is personal, and that she didn’t want everyone else hearing her songs. The sharing that was going on in my class among peers was special to the students, because they were not just sharing music, they were sharing themselves through the music. This personalgraduation identification with music presents a dilemma when it comes to composing. On the one hand, students with so much to identify with in music potentially could be powerful expressers through original music. On the other hand, because music so powerfully expresses what they are feeling or thinking, they often don’t see the need to create music; someone else has already done it for them. One need only see a teen get excited when a particular song begins to play, and hear them respond out loud, “that’s my song.” Students typically have several of these, but how wonderful it would be if one or more of them could be one they composed.

This brings me back to Pomp and Circumstance. I’m pretty sure most of the students won’t remember it was written by an English composer named Elgar, or that it is part of a set of ceremonial marches, or that this particular march is also known by it’s lyrics, “Land of Hope and Glory.” But whenever they hear that music, they will always remember that was the music that was played as they marched into their graduation. To be honest, though I’ve played or conducted that music for 27 graduations, and marched to it for three graduations of my own, that first time, at my own high school graduation is the one I remember, and when I do, it still sends chills up my spine, even all of these years later. On this day of my students’ graduation, congratulations to all those graduating this spring, and to all teachers who have sent another class on their way, prepared for long, productive lives with the knowledge, know-how, skills, and wisdom you have given them.