It's about time.


Most jazz pedagogy is all about the notes. Scales, intervals, arpeggios, chords, sequences, patterns – it all seems to be about tonality. Where's the discussion of time? Of course, putting the right notes in the right harmonic places is very important, but so is when you put them there. Time is the framework for everything in music. Music frames our experience of time. Music makes time audible.

So how do we get to grips with time?

The first thing we can focus on is the time signature – how many beats to the bar? Most Western music is either in 4:4 or 3:4. Certainly other time signatures are fairly rare in jazz – you either get a march or a waltz. Sometimes you get a 6:8. This is not true for many forms of folk music – in Irish Trad you get plenty of 12:8 and 9:8, in certain Eastern European music you may get 7:8, or 11:8.

We are talking about jazz here, though. In 4:4, the strong beats are 1 & 3, and if you emphasise the 1 & 3, the music sounds static. We have hit the strong beat, and we are going nowhere further. However, in jazz (and much other popular music), you emphasise the 2 & 4 – the upbeat, or backbeat. We count 4:4 as “one and TWO and three and FOUR and”, where the “ands” represent quavers. This draws our attention to the movement of the music, because we are always listening for the next downbeat. This is one of the constituents of “groove” - giving the music a sense of propulsion, a sense of forward motion. The symmetry of 4:4 gives us this balanced frame for our groove.

How we do that in waltz time? There is a wider range of approaches here, which can depend on the tempo. You can make the strong beat on the one, or the two. You can put a stress on the and of three, to push us to the one. Or, on the and of one to take us to two. The odd - number structure of a three beat bar gives us more choice, but also means we have to take care. To spell out what the groove actually is. Some players will play alternate beats as accents through the whole thing, so you get ONE two THREE, one TWO three, all the way through. Sounds like four four, but counts in three.

We thought a little about the structure of the bar, but what of an individual beat? It can help to think of each beat as a circle, rather than a “click”, a point in time. The click is only what separates the beats. Imagine that you are beating time with your hand, but instead of going up and down, you draw a circle in the air. How long you take to draw your circle is the length of the beat. Is the beginning of the beat “on the hour” at the top? The bottom – half past? Or, say, at quarter past? Let's say it is at the top. Where are you going to start your note? At the top? Five past? Five to? This is what we mean when we are talking about where in the beat someone plays. Listen to Dexter Gordon. He can be as far behind as putting his beats at ten past. Some players play on the beat – or even before it. Playing behind the beat creates a sense of space and relaxation, while ahead gives a sense of urgency and excitement.

When some players want to be a certain distance from the top of the beat, the other players have to stay in their own time. If I play behind the beat, and you are on the beat, best you stay on the beat, and let me be behind. Otherwise, we will both slow down, because I will keep trying to get behind you, and you will keep trying to match my time. Disaster. The same is true for players who like to be ahead – don't go with them, or they will keep trying to lose you, you will try to catch them up, and you will both end up playing faster and faster. What we need is for everyone to play in their own sense of time, and this gives everyone space. No one is trying to fit notes into the same gaps as anyone else. Everything ends up in its own place, fitting together because they are not vying for the same slots.

Having your own place in the time is part of how we swing. The usual explanation of swing is that we change two even quavers so that they are more like a set of triplet quavers with the first two tied. If you do this, you will hear that it sounds “ricky-ticky”. Try this: at a medium tempo, play even quavers (straight eighths) just on one note. Now, lean just a little more on the second and fourth pairs – both quavers, mind. Next, lay back off the beat so you are playing behind. I think this gives a good Dexter-like swing without the ricky-ticky”swung” quavers. If you can articulate so that the “and” quavers get the harder note beginnings (“attack”) it works even better.

There is another aspect to thinking about strong and weak beats – notes can sound very different according to where you place them in the time frame. The notes on the strong beats tend to be heard as the strong notes of the tonality, as roots or fifths, maybe thirds. Notes that are played on the beat are heard as being stronger than those on “ands”. If you place weak notes on strong beats, you can confuse the listener's sense of tonality, as well as your own, and that of the other band members.

Reading about time is no substitute for a one-to-one lesson where I can demonstrate exactly how time affects your music.