In the Beginning Was… the Beat!

English: Entrance to Clutter's Cave A man-made...

Did I ever tell you about how I imagine this business of making music got started?

I imagine it was fifty, sixty thousand years ago in a cave. The clan had brought down a mastodon or some other example of charismatic megafauna.

Bellies were full, finally, after months of low-everything diet. But excitement was still high. Oog, the lead spear chucker could stand it no more. He got up in front of the group in the flickering flames of the fires and started swaying back and forth. He was not particularly known for his articulatiosity, but he was so jazzed that he started adding sound to the motion, kind of a guttural uh-uh-uh-uh. Suddenly, words burst forth, which was pretty amazing, since words were a brand new invention, adding (but not replacing) depth to gestures.

“Killed the mastodon! Uh! Killed the mastodon! Uh!”

“Took my spear and ran him through, I killed the mastodon!”


Well, this was a big hit with the cave crowd, and pretty soon, everyone was up and swaying and chanting to the mastodon two-step. It continued for hours, until everyone more-or-less collapsed in a fur-covered heap.

The beginning of music! Primitive, yes, oh yes, but there it was. Raw, real, deeply spontaneous, pulsing and expressive, short on pitch nuance and strong on rhythm.

Oog woke up then next morning, groggy, sore all over, but still full and happy. Somebody was poking him with a finger.

It was Boog. “Uh, Oog? Could you show me how you did that mastodon dance thing you did last night? That was really cool, man.”

And thus, music education was born (my second theory here).

Anyway. In my Improv for Classical Musicians course, we do mostly rhythm for the first couple weeks. Classical musicians are good at reading rhythms off paper, but in general, they have a terrible sense of rhythm, no idea how to generate rhythms, and a very fallible sense of pulse and time, i.e. knowing where you without counting every beat (“4 measures are up….right… now”). If I were king, I would start with a semester of nothing but playing drums and other percussion before doing any pitch stuff. We are terribly pitch-centric as classical musicians, and our sense of rhythm suffers accordingly. Occidental art music is notoriously poor in rhythmic and metric interest – it’s all about melody and harmony. As improvisers (or composers), we do ourselves a great favor to become familiar with the vibrant rhythmic traditions of the musics of jazz, Latin America, Africa, the Balkans, and other World musics.

Besides, drumming and percussion is just plain fun. Everyone should be issued a drum at birth to get rhythm in their souls. Rhythm is our native musical language. We just think pitch is; we have been led astray in a sense by our fancy melodic instruments, but we’re still Oog underneath; down deep we need and crave and thrive on rhythm.

A groove, a beat, of any sort (even a barebones metronome click) is a powerful impetus to improvise. Rhythm animates, energizes! To get your morning improv mojo working, get any kind of beat going from any source and let it carry you along. Let your inner Oog take over and drive your practice. Rhythm can get you through all of that pitch work (scales, arpeggios) you have to do; just invest this part of your practice with some rhythmic interest – who says all scales have to be only steady 8th notes?

Learning the djembe in Queen's Park.

To make up for our classical deficiency, become something of a drummer. Acquire some basic hand drum skills. Start creating fascinatin’ rhythms on every surface near you, subtlely or not so. Pick up some percussion. I recommend a djembe, the king of personal percussion. Lose yourself in long odes to Oog. Get back to the cave, with others, if possible. Just do it. It’s the basis of music, it’s part of our DNA, and it feels good to do it. Next time you have to take a break between scales, stop and drum in the interval. Next time you’re watching TV and a commercial comes on, drum until the program starts again. Football plays are about 6-8 seconds long. Drum between plays, even if you just clap, slap your lap, or rap and tap something. Just do it.

Know why babies cry when they are born? My theory is that they have just come off of a 9 month groove track – their mother’s heartbeat. Suddenly they get separated from the beat! The groove is gone! Who stole the beat!

Who wouldn’t cry at that?



(Photo credit: bbaunach)

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