Time, the Structure of Our Lives and Our Art

Time is a funny thing. Human beings have a great need to understand things and a great deal of our ability to understand rests in the ability to categorize, building upon what we’ve encountered in the past through experience or education, and relating the new to what we’ve already learned in order to build connections which lead to further knowledge. Time is one of these ways that we add structure to what might appear to be a structure less existence. While we generally don’t question the reality of time, an argument could be made that we created it in order to help us understand the relationship between occurrences that happened in the past and those happening now or in the future. It provided another means of measurement, and it’s one that we employ probably more than any other consciously.

Musically we use time to structure phrasing and, of course, rhythm. It is so important to what we do musically that there is even a basic tenant that states people will notice mistakes in rhythm more readily than wrong notes, and for the most part I would have to agree. It’s also more aggravating for the players in some ways, because a wrong note doesn’t always affect more than one player. An incorrect rhythm can bring down the entire group. We train ourselves to have solid senses of time, and pride ourselves on our abilities to maintain a solid sense of time. We know the effects of playing a piece too fast and the impact it has on the sense of the song, and we also know the pitfalls of playing it too slowly and potentially losing the sense of life within the piece itself.

Drummers in bands often get the blame if the group slows down or speeds up, despite the fact that we are all trained to use our ears and react to what is happening around us. Many musicians view it as the drummer’s job to enforce time keeping, and if the drummer fails to do so they find another drummer. However, it is truly every musician’s job to deal with time, learn it, adhere to it, and work together to maintain it. If a band member has a bad sense of time, there is only so much the rest of the group can do to bring that individual into line with the majority and often the individual with a bad sense of time brings down the group. I’ve actually seen situations where a drummer with an excellent sense of time and its application was let go from the band and replaced because the drummer couldn’t force the players with poor sense of time to adhere to the time standards. How’s that for screwed up! Getting fired for someone else’s’ shortcomings happens in every type of job, but this type of thing is almost perverse.

Most bands do rely heavily upon the rhythm section, primarily the bassist and drummer, to enforce time keeping, but their jobs are also to be musical as opposed to being metronomes. Learning to keep time and to play rhythms accurately is every musician’s responsibility; it’s one of the foundations that music is actually built upon, but often one that is the least practiced. There has been an entire industry within music devoted specifically toward creating teaching devices that are designed to assist in building this inner sense of time, those companies that build and market metronomes and rhythm machines. These devices, when they are used and used properly, do assist in building a solid sense of time and are well worth the investment. They also don’t lie, so there’s no one to blame but oneself when what is being played doesn’t match the pattern. There are many players who try metronomes, get frustrated and quit using them, resolving that it doesn’t work for them and they don’t need to use them. These are the players who are going to be dragging the rhythm section, and creating rhythmic issues within the band, no matter how solid the rhythm section is.

To a certain extent we created time in order to apply measurable order in the chaos that is our existence. It allows us to understand cause and effect more firmly because it gives a relationship that spans more than the immediate moment. How we understand our world relies heavily on structure, categorization, and relationships between things, events, and people. Time affects every facet of our existence in same way, shape or form. As musicians, time is a vital foundation of our art; without it we are lost in a sea of notes without structure, order and sense, at the extreme tumbling down into a cacophony that is nothing more than noise and disorder. Make peace with your metronome, and practice, practice, practice.


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