In my last post, I showed you some of the issues we face as singers because there are parts of singing we don’t know how to talk about.
A lot of our trouble comes from the fact that we use sheet music so much.
I’m a big fan of music notation; being able to write music down makes it so much more accessible! But like any visual representation of a kinesthetic experience, sheet music is imperfect, and because we use it so often, we forget that it’s inherently incomplete.
This leads to a host of problems that leave us feeling frustrated, confused, and resigned to the false belief that some parts of music just aren’t going to make sense to us.
In my next few articles, I’m going to break down the problems that sheet music creates for singers, and I’m going to show you how you can overcome them.
Problem #1: We think about rhythm one-dimensionally.
Imagine I call you up and invite you to join me for a walk.
“It’s a mile long,” I say.
You expect the path to look like this:
But when we get there, the path looks like this:
That’s not a walk — that’s a climb! It’s going to be a very different physical experience than you expected. You’re probably mad at me because I didn’t tell you to bring hiking boots and climbing gear.
I protest: “But I told you it was a mile long!”
Sheet music treats music the way I treated that mile-long walk. It tells you the distance you’ll be traveling, but it doesn’t tell you what the journey actually looks like. When you see a melody line like this:
The only rhythmic information you’re getting is proportions in time, or how long the notes are in relation to each other. That information is one-dimensional. Everything you have can be read straight across as one horizontal line:
Our lived experience of rhythm, on the other hand, has many dimensions. Those simple proportions can be interpreted in countless ways.
Take a look at these three paths that treat the rhythmic proportions of this musical example very differently:
Try following each of those journeys visually and reading or singing the words aloud as you go. You can imagine you’re riding the path like a roller coaster car on a track, or bouncing along it like a bouncing ball, or floating along it like a boat. I like to follow the journey in the air with my hand.
How do these journeys feel to you? What’s it like making such different shapes with the same line of text and the same proportions of distance? What kind of information are you getting now, and what kinds of things are you thinking about, that the music notation wasn’t giving you?
These drawings offer a two-dimensional view of rhythm. They contain a ton of information that sheet music doesn’t have any place for but that is nonetheless essential to music. Because we don’t have concrete words or visuals for the “shape” side of rhythm — the contour of the terrain rather than the distance — that part of our music-making often gets sidelined.
That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about it at all. We use language that suggests shape and dynamic motion in music all the time. Do any of these phrases sound familiar?
- “This song has a heavy beat.”
- “The groove here is light and bouncy.”
- “The melody really drives forward.”
- “This section has a lilting quality.”
Feel and groove are the terms we use to talk about how music moves. The imagery of feel and groove evokes the kind of multidimensional rhythmic journey we’ve been exploring.
The problem is, because feel and groove aren’t visually represented in sheet music, we often think of them as separate from the rhythmic proportions we see on the page. We treat the distance of our journey and the contour of the terrain as different elements when they are, in fact, inextricably linked.
We might even think the rhythmic proportions are more important than feel or groove. Why? Because we assume that everything essential to music has already been translated into a concrete visual. Why would everyone use sheet music if it can’t tell us what we need to know?
Traditional music notation is so popular and so commonplace that we forget that it’s inherently incomplete. We forget that it’s a representation of music and not music itself.
If you’re going out on a walk, knowing whether you’re strolling along a flat path or climbing a steep trail is almost more important than knowing how long the journey is. Similarly, the feel of musical rhythm is almost more important than the proportions. By treating the proportions as the most important way to engage with rhythm, we rob ourselves of information that’s both essential to our performance and more accessible to us as performers.
How can we fix this problem?
Solution: Start thinking about rhythm two-dimensionally.
Here are a few ways you can incorporate two-dimensional rhythm into your own music-making:
1. Next time you work on a song from a piece of sheet music, try drawing out the rhythmic journey in a two-dimensional way as you go. What kinds of shapes do you connect to? What is the contour of your terrain? There are many answers to this question, and they don’t have to be perfectly tied to the note values on the page. Focus instead on how the song feels and how the path you draw connects to your kinesthetic experience of singing it.
I like to scribble my paths above the vocal line as I work. Here are a couple examples to inspire you, and don’t forget about the three journeys I drew earlier in this email!
2. Give the dynamic words of feel and groove the same consideration you give note values. When you see several quarter notes in a row, are they light and bouncy, or are they heavy? Are these lilting eighth notes, or do they drive forward? What do those ideas mean to you? How do you experience them, and how do you visualize them? Let this be an essential part of your early learning, not something you add on after you feel you’ve “learned the rhythms.”
3. Connect your sense of feel and groove to the two-dimensional visuals you’re drawing. Does a “heavy” beat dip down low? Does it make your path taller, or thicker? How do a “bouncy” phrase and a “smooth” phrase look different from each other? Let your visual exploration help you clarify your understanding of feel and groove in more concrete ways.
4. When you feel like these ideas are starting to add up to something, try learning a song by drawing a path and following that journey instead of reading the notes on the page. How does that change your understanding of the music? Do you feel like you’ve missed anything by turning away from the traditional notation, and if so, what? Have you gained anything in the process?
Comment below after you do some experimenting and let me know what you discover. I think you’ll be surprised to see both how similar and how different our collective experiences of rhythm are.