I’m not much of a jazz fan. But when Dave Brubeck died last week I remembered a joke his son, Chris, once told about rhythm.
At the time, I was singing in a small chorus in Wilton, Connecticut that performed everything from madrigals to pop. But for one concert we did a Brubeck piece full of odd time signatures like 7/8: 7 eighth notes to the measure.
Now nearly all music, from Bach to rock, is written in either duple or triple rhythm – usually 2/4, 4/4 or 3/4 – with the first note of every measure accented.
Sometimes composers use more than one time signature within the same piece. Sometimes they use syncopation – accents off the beat – to add even more rhythmic interest.
But most of the time you’re still in a familiar meter. Here’s Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in classic 4/4 time.
So even for lifelong singers, the 7/8 time signature in this Brubeck piece felt weird. We didn’t get it.
Finally Brubeck’s son Chris, who was conducting, said, “My father always says it’s easy to get 7/8 time. You just go one, two, three, four, five, six, sev-en.”
For a minute we just looked at him. Then we laughed. Because, of course, he had just counted not 7 beats but 8, which is familiar territory.
Rhythm isn’t so much heard as felt. It’s visceral. You might not know why “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is boring, but you know it is.
Dave Brubeck explored new rhythms because he was bored with the old ones. He found ideas everywhere.
In Turkey he picked up a rhythm from street musicians that became “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”
Because his music doesn’t “swing,” we have to work a little harder to get it, as we do with good writing. But the rewards are greater than with same old, same old.
- Vary sentence length, from single words (like Stop!) and sentence fragments to longer ones. No longer than 30, though.
- Use verbs with zing.
- Use punctuation.
- If it’s appropriate for what you’re writing, use dialogue.
- Use color, in both senses of the word.
- Use surprise.
- Read what you’ve written out loud, which will show up monotonous, sing-song rhythms instantly.
- Read other writers’ work out loud, especially poetry, to see how the writer achieve her effects.
Finally – Sing! And if you can’t do that, listen to great music. After all, there’s no better season.