It’s hard to overstate the importance of time in music. On a macro level, time is about tempo: how fast or slow is a song and are we following it. But on the micro level, we can talk about something called “time feel”: the subtle way musicians interpret time as they subdivide beats.
Subdividing beats simply means dividing larger beats into smaller beats. Whole notes can be divided into half notes, then quarters, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-secondths and so on. Mathematically speaking, these subdivisions are very simple to place on a grid. But human beings subdivide beats in our heads, we don’t always do it with flawless mathematical exactness. Subtly and often unconsciously, we push and pull certain beats in a pattern that is repeatable, but hard to deconstruct.
Musicians are often known for the unique way they “feel time.” These minute rhythmic variances produce a recognizable personality in the music. Along with phrasing and his signature terminal vibrato, time feel is one reason why Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing sounds so much like his singing.
Time feel is most apparent in jazz. This is partly because jazz artists place a high value on free expression, but also because swing-time has a way of decoupling subdivided beats from “the grid”, allowing musicians to push time feels further away from mathematical correctness. “Capricorn” by Pat Metheny is one of a billion good examples. If you aren’t used to jazz, it may just sound like the notes aren’t lining up! But relax a bit and you may discover that the spaces between the notes–the beats that don’t quite fall on the grid lines–create a constant tension and release that sounds very human and engages the listener.
Here’s an example from the R&B world: listen to “Best Friend” by Musiq Soulchild. Just trying to describe this groove is an exercise in critical listening! Is the snare early? Is the kick drum late? Are some parts swinging eighths while others are shuffling sixteenths? However you describe the groove, it makes me want to scrunch up my face and say “mmmhh!”The drums may have been programmed in a sequencer, but this song has an unmistakably human quality.
You may have heard the terms “on the beat”, “ahead of the beat” and “behind the beat”. These are general descriptions of time feel that can apply to styles like country music, which is usually right on the beat, or specific musicians like jazz bassist Ray Brown who consistently played ahead of the beat. It’s important to point out that even general descriptions of time feel are hard to pin down. If a band is said to be playing ahead of the beat, it doesn’t mean that each musician is playing each note a little bit early. If that were the case, we would no longer have a time feel, but simply a song that started a fraction of a second early! Time feel is much more nuanced and has to do with certain musicians playing certain beats a bit pushed or a bit pulled. For example, a snare drum may be played slightly behind beats two and four with the bass drum right on beats one and three. This would produce a laid back feel.
Audio software is coming around to time feel too. Reason was the first to the game with their ReGroove Mixer, which allows users to adjust the time-feel of sequenced tracks by adjusting a set of virtual knobs. Logic Pro X now has a team of virtual drummers who can follow the groove of an existing track, and adjust time-feel from there with a single Push/Pull control. If you tell the computer generated drummer to play a “Push” feel, it rushes all the the notes a bit, but also pushes the hi-hats just ahead of the snare on beats two and three. If you tell it to play a “Pull” feel, it delays all the notes a bit, but also pulls the hi-hats just behind the snare. In either case it pushes or pulls the hi-hats more than the snare drum or the kick drum.
All that to say, time-feel is tricky business. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you’ve got it. Having said that, there are some ways to practice time-feel.
How to practice time feel
Practicing time feel alone is somewhat nebulous. The way beats coincide can only be described in relation to the other musicians in the band. This is why playing along with recordings is one of the best ways to learn time feel. Learn the parts, but go beyond just the notes themselves. Try to imitate the character of the musician in the recording as much as possible. By imitating different musicians with unique time feels you can learn to distinguish between them and reproduce them better when you’re on your own.
We looked at practicing with a metronome in a previous post. Here are some advanced metronome tricks to help you personalize your relationship with subdivisions:
Click on two and four It’s super-common for jazz musicians to practice with the metronome set to beats two and four, which mimics the most common snare drum pattern. Two clicks per measure offers more “free play” time between clicks, which opens the door for a looser time-feel. Whether you play jazz or not, this is a great practice method.
One click per measure For an even looser practice mode, set the click to just one click per measure. For a song at 120 bpm, you would divide by four and set the metronome to 30 bpm. To get below 40 bpm you’ll probably need an online tool like webMetronome which allows settings as low as 1 bpm. Once you’ve mastered one click per measure, move on to one click every two measures, and so on. Experiment with the click on different beats: 1, 2, 3, 4, or even off-beats like 1-and, 2-and, etc. Sparse click practice forces you to internalize the subdivision of beats (read “count in your head”), which is essential for maintaining any kind of time-feel or groove.
The practice of subdividing and internalizing beats shows off the relationship between accuracy, precision and personality in music. It may seem like such rigorous time practice would result in stiff, robotic playing. In fact, the opposite is true. The more precisely your brain can identify the middle of a beat, the more “elbow room” you will discover around it. These are the magical milliseconds where time feel comes alive.
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