Rhythm: The Grand Arbiter of Right and Wrong Notes

Many theory books have been written about which notes are the money notes and which notes are wrong in relation to the chords. Although it is very true that each note has a certain relationship to the the other notes, both melodically and harmonically, it is crucial to not forget about how rhythmicallythe notes are played.


In Jazz, Funk, Blues and in all genres of music and life,rhythm is the most important element. I have heard musicians play the “right” noteswithout rhythmic conviction and the notes sound wrong. Conversely, I have heard musicians play notes consideredwrong or funny but with incredible rhythm, and magically theysound right. Just listen to McCoy Tyner, Coltrane and numerous othermusicians improvise on F minor and play all the notes of the chromaticscale that would, without a doubt, sound wrong if you just played the chord and each note. But magically, when notes that are theoretically wrong are played with overpowering rhythmic conviction, they sound right.

Without a doubt, there are musicIans who only play in time and then there are musicians who make rhythm.

It is understood that any serious musician can playwith good metronomic time. That’s nice and dandybut who cares. Maybe its good for a college auditionor preliminary technical development, but it’s sure not thereason people go the Blue Note club in NYC. Nor do they come because you have a PhD in jazz studies. Music lovers go to clubs to voluntarily succumbto someone else’s sense of time. Great musicians have their own sense of time, and I don’t meancoming to the gig late. Through their playing you hear them honoringtheir life force. It is always seductive to hear or see anyone doingany activity where their life force is palpable. But in music, it’s critical to render your life as a convincing, animated, individualistic version of the greatness in being human.

There is a profound difference between playing in time and making rhythm.


One of the most critical aspects of making rhythm is hearing what you will play before you play it. If you are just moving your fingers in ways governed by sight, what the guitar scale looks like,or the visual patterns of piano, you will probable play technicallyappropriate notes but with no discernible impact.

Time and making rhythm is very hard to learn and the only musiciansI have known to make rhythm are the ones who have an intimate listening  relationship with the masters of music. Through my thousands of years of teaching jazz, I have had some students who loved the idea of jazz much more than actually listening to it. I never could understand why.

Those students never captured the magic and essence of jazz. I have said this before, but it’s worth repeating.If you see a movie and two weeks later see it again, it’s embarrassing to realize how much you missed. It’s the same with music. We miss so much of the value of music through only one listening. I recommend that if you like a particular tune, listen to it 10 times right away. The first 3 times listen to it forthe general vibe. Next, listen 3 times to each solo (maybe it’s sax, piano and bass). Then listen to what the piano player is doing behind every soloist. Then listen to what the drummer is doing behind each soloist. Then listen to the hook-up between the bass, drums and piano. Then listen to it and sing the rhythms of each instrument. Many years ago, a salsa trombonist came by and we listened and sang all therhythmic hits on three albums. How could we do this? We had deeply listened to those records hundreds of times. Any great musician has a deep listening relationship with music,and that is the key to making rhythm.

Listen, Love It, Make It.

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