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Improving Performance: Find the Beat

A few years ago, I wrote a series on The Developing Artist called “Polishing Your Performance”, focusing on different ways DIY musicians (or any musician, for that matter) could improve their skills. The piece below is adapted from that series, and deals with one of the simplest yet most important aspects of good musicianship: finding the beat. It seems like this is so simple it should be obvious, but I’m surprised at how often this simple concept eludes musicians. Read on… 


In covering the music scene as a blogger, I get a lot of music submissions from various artists–people who want me to hear and review their recordings in the hope of getting some exposure.  (ALERT: I’m about to give away one of my secrets.)  I get more of these than I have the time to cover.

As much as I harp on the need for good songwriting, believe it or not, when I’m considering an act, songwriting isn’t the first thing I listen for.  The first thing I notice is rhythm.  Are the musicians playing on time? Are they playing together?

If they aren’t, I toss the demo.  Pure and simple.

What do I mean by playing on time?  I mean playing on the beat.  Accuracy of tempo, and tempo that doesn’t get faster or slower from measure to measure.  You need to find the beat, you need to feel the beat, and you need to keep the beat.  All through the song.  Musicians need to be listening to each other, and playing with each other.  They need to be accurate together. Inconsistent tempos translate to sloppy music–and sloppy music doesn’t sell. Music with sloppy rhythm makes you sound like an amateur.

Simply put, there’s a lot of good music out there, put out by good musicians. Professional studio musicians can lay down a rhythmically accurate track almost every time, usually on the first take. What separates the men from the boys, figuratively speaking, is rhythmic accuracy–and that goes for live performance as well as recording.  You have to soundprofessional in order to be seen as professional.  Rhythmic accuracy isn’t the only element of professional musicianship (playing the right notes helps, too!); but it is a huge part of it.

Now, most of the public won’t listen to your record and say, “Hey, that drummer isn’t playing a steady beat.”  But theywill notice that there is a difference between your record and the stuff the national acts are putting out–they will notice that something is wrong.  To their minds, it simply translates to “good music” or “bad music.”  But in many cases, the “something” that makes it good or bad is the rhythm factor.

So what do you do about it?  In polishing your performance, here are some key elements in improving rhythmic accuracy:

  1. A strong drummer.  Obviously, the “point man” for rhythm is your drummer.  Someone who doesn’t feel the beat inherently really shouldn’t be playing the drums.  If you are a drummer, you need to be a human metronome.  Work on rhythmic accuracy until you’re sick of it.  And if you are in a band and your drummer can’t keep time, you won’t move forward until that problem is solved.  If you have the time and patience, make your drummer get some lessons; if not, fire him/her.
  2. A solid bassist.  The best bass players are the ones who feel the beat along with the drummer, so that the two sound like one instrument. Get these two elements down solid, and you have a good foundation for everything else.
  3. Working on your own sense of rhythm.  Whatever instrument you play (even vocally), hold yourself to a standard of excellence where keeping the beat is concerned. If you have tempo issues, practice with a metronome.  When playing live with other musicians, listen as you play.  Lean on your drummer (refer to point one if your drummer is time-challenged) to find your place. Straying from the beat in a solo or with your vocals is part of musical expression, but you should always know where the beat is, so you can find your way back to it. :)

It’s important to say at this point that as human beings, we will never be entirely accurate with the beat.  That’s why we can often tell computerized music from live playing, because computers can play in perfect time, and humans can’t. Miniscule inaccuracies are normal, and there are some genres where it’s even encouraged.  Tempo in music may be based on mathematics, but it isn’t an exact science. It is an art, and we are artists, after all.  What makes us good artists is when we can get as close to the beat as possible, while still playing with one another and making it sound “human.”

Find the beat, feel the beat, and keep the beat.  Make it your focus, and you will improve.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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