Tool #31: Expanding Your Rhythmic Arsenal

Expanding your rhythmic arsenal never hurts.  Whether you need a freer-sounding piece, a busier passage, a thematic variation, or a unique and catchy rhythm, here are some techniques to increase the rhythmic variety you’re using and make your rhythms more interesting.

  1. Tie over the barline.  If you have a passage contained within three measures, consider starting a few notes early and tying them over to their original starting notes on the downbeat.  In addition, you could end some notes later than the barline by tying over to a new bar.  This technique is great for getting unlocked from the barline jail cell (a struggle I have had much trouble with).

    Tie over the barline and use tuplets
    Tie over the barline and use tuplets
  2. Use tuplets.  If your line could be freer with a quintuplet instead of a triplet and two single notes, then you might consider a quintuplet.  You could also try putting in triplet runs against duple runs, thus creating a three-versus-two feel.

    Use (more advanced) tuplets
    Use (more advanced) tuplets
  3. Divide your tuplets in different ways.  For example, tie the third and fourth notes of a quintuplet together, or if you have a half-note triplet combine the first two notes into a whole note.
  4. Don’t follow the meter.  Even if you’re in 4/4, try writing passages that might fit better in different and mixed time signatures.  (You can always go back and change the time signatures later on if you want.)
  5. Use rests to add unexpected effects and shorten rhythms.  Whether it’s adding in jarring silences or shortened phrases (which could be completed by other instruments), adding in rests can make your rhythms freer and more interesting.
  6. Use changing and asymmetrical time signatures.  Rhythms change their impact depending on their placement in time, and changing their placement in time can be done effectively through changing meters, especially odd meters such as 5, 7, 9, 10, or 11 beats per measure.  I’d say that unless you’re counting in sixteenth note beats, you should start using two or more measures if you’re going to be above 12 beats per measure (so it’s okay to write 15/16 time signatures, but for 15/8 I would recommend one bar of 7/8 and one of 4/4 or something to that extent–this is for the sake of the players.)
  7. Use metric modulation.  When a tuplet becomes the pulse, the tuplet of the new pulse takes on a new rhythmical importance.  For example, if a quarter note triplet turns into the main beats of 3/4, then the tuplets in the new 3/4 are essentially nested tuplets of the old beat.  This is rhythmically complex and interesting.  (Nested tuplets are tuplets within tuplets, eg. quarter note quintuplets having triplet eight notes in them.  Frank Zappa’s The Black Pagecontains examples of these.)

    Use metric modulation, which can create the feel of nested tuplets
    Use metric modulation, which can create the feel of nested tuplets
  8. Throw previously heard rhythms off.  If you have an eighth note triplet run in your piece, throw the listener’s ear off by making it an eighth note septuplet the next time it is heard.  The listener may expect 6 notes in the run, but now hears 7 in the same space of time.  It can really add subtle variety and spice up your work.
  9. Make the listener guess through rests.  If there are so many rests that the listener can’t tell when the next entrance or ensemble moment is going to be, then you have them in a good place, because this allows you to put in rhythms in unexpected places and make the listener want to hear the next unexpected–but interestingly placed–sound.
  10. Take advantage of slow tempos.  If you want to create a sound world where time is hard to grasp, and sounds are more concerned with duration than a pulse, use a slow tempo in a medium to large meter–anything from qtr = 40 in 4/4 to hlf =60 in 3/2 (and anything that conveys a slow feel in a meter where you have lots of space).

These are only 10 ways to increase your arsenal, but keep thinking of ways to expand your rhythmic vocabulary.  One way is to write a passage and then change most of the rhythms and give the music a new perspective or feel.  Performers will tell you if you’ve gone too crazy, but that’s hard to do!

Thanks for reading, and happy composing,


2 thoughts on “Tool #31: Expanding Your Rhythmic Arsenal

  1. Nice post. Just to add to that, a couple of techniques I’ve learned from my composition teacher, Anthony Suter, is to write the piece without barlines, then add the meters and barlines in afterwards. (This takes a bit more diligence when writing for multiple voices, but it can be done.) Also, making sure to use large enough manuscript paper will give more variety to phrases and their lengths, as people tend to confine their perspective of the piece to how much they are seeing on the page at the moment (this is certainly something I’ve had to work on recently).


    1. Those are great tips–thanks for posting them! I really want to try the sans-barline technique now, and I definitely need to get bigger manuscript paper for that and a few other reasons.

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