When you are involved in playing music you will come across quite a bit of terminology that can be a bit confusing at first. Often there is a dry precise definition but the way people use the terms may be a bit confusing. I find that if you don’t understand the basic teminology you can quickly get lost when they are used a bit more loosely than you are used to. In this article I will introduce how I like to think about tempo, rhythm and groove and how they relate to each other. This is just as important as learning scales.
Tempo is perhaps the easiest term to explain. Basically the tempo tells you how fast to play the music. I guess that you often tap your foot when you play or listen to music. Most likely you will tap your foot at the tempo of the rhythm (it is not uncommon though to tap your foot at twice the tempo or at half the tempo). In order to get the full picture though you also need to know what the tempo is referring to. To define this we have the time signature, this tells us how the music notation is divided in to musical bars.
4/4 is a very common time signature telling us that each musical bar contain four quarter note beats. Seems fair as four quarter notes would make up a whole note. However not all time signatures are that simple but let’s leave that for another time. If the time signature is 4/4, then the tempo tells you how man quarter note beats to play per minute. Therefore it also tells you how long a quarter note lasts.
The tempo is notated in bpm, beats per minute. 120 bpm translates to 2 beats every second. In 4/4 this means that a quarter note lasts half a second.
If the tempo is the speed of the music then rhythm is the repeating pattern of strong and weak beats. Every bar the same underlying pattern is repeated. Listen to how drummers play, rhythm is their contribution to the music and their playing with tell you which beats are strong and which beats are weak.
In 4/4 the recurring pattern is strongest beat, weaker beat, strong beat, weakest beat. For a blues harmonica player this is important to understand. People will pay more attention to the notes you play on beats 1 and 3, make sure make them count!
In comparison 2/4 rhythm (typically marches) only have two types of beats, a strong and a weak.
The best way to think of groove is the feeling of the music. A shuffle has a specific feeling and that is the groove. To be more specific I like to think of the groove in terms of how the sub divisions of the rhythm is handled. How is an eigth note played for example?
In rock music the eigth notes are played very straigth forward against the quarter notes. The eigth note between beat one and two is played half way between the beats.
In a shuffle the eigth notes have more of a triplet feeling, the eight note between two beats is delayed so that it is closer to the second beat. This gives a completely different feeling compared to the rock beat.
I hope this explanation will make communicating with other musicians easier for you. Maybe this can be your introduction to learning more music theory. A word of causion though. Different styles of music may use these terms differently. In general the way I have described things work most of the time but you may run into different usages as well. For example a beat can mean an entire track or the instrumental part of a song. Groove may mean that the musician is playing a rhtyhm with a lot of feeling pushing and pulling beats with a pleasing effect.
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