Defining the Complexities of Rhythm

Where does the rhythm of a written passage come from?

It should be an easy question to answer, though as I delve deeper into the technical complexities of what constitutes “good” writing I find the answers slipping out of my grasp time and again.

Wraith like and ever-changing, my concept of rhythmic flow in writing thus far has failed to resolve itself fully in my mind.

Now I know I use music as a method of analogy quite a bit, but considering we are discussing rhythm here, it makes sense to use it yet again; at least it makes sense to me.

Consider a three-piece blues outfit – guitar, bass and drums; the basic, stripped down, bare essentials of the modern(ish) blues sound.

Who, in this group of musicians, sets the rhythm?

Well, let’s dispel a little myth from the outset, shall we?

The drummer is, contrary to popular opinion, NOT the timekeeper.

To be frank, the drummer in any band should never be considered the timekeeper; this is an old saw decades in the making, but it is patently rubbish and for a very simple reason.

Anyone who considers themselves a musician should be able to keep time, not rely on someone else to do it for them.

Standard piece of furniture on a piano? A metronome.

Why? Because the student practices all their scales and exercises until they can execute them in relaxed time.

When they can do this, and not before, they will be permitted to progress to the next exercise.

As one of my past teachers would opine; “If you can’t play it in time, you can’t play it.”

So, is it the bass player then? The guitarist? No and no.

Who, then?

No one does.

That’s right, no one keeps time.

The reason no one sets the rhythm is because they all do, and they do so together.

Here’s a couple of examples.

The first one is arguably one of the greatest three-piece blues bands from the Eighties; Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.

Any musician setting out to cover the work of Ray Vaughan’s early years will tell you that to do so, and do it well, is no mean feat.

There’s a reason for that, and it is not just the guitarist having his work cut out for him.

Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass had a little trick they used to great effect when working with the dear departed guitar legend.

While Layton would play behind the beat in the time-honored blues fashion, Shannon would play ahead of the beat, pushing against Layton’s laid back grooves. The two of them managed to pull this stunt off for years.

The sound of the two contesting instruments created a tension in the music that SRV could play within; laying back or pushing forward, but always staying within the boundaries set by his rhythm section.

In this case, who was setting the rhythm? They all were, producing a sound that is very difficult to replicate.

Another considerably less notable example is a three-piece blues band I played in for eight years, playing all the classics, including Texas Flood and a couple of other SRV staples.

The bass player and I discussed this tension thing many times and even managed to get it happening, but it wasn’t our thing.

We had a different approach that became our method.

Our guitarist was a very talented and creative young man. An explorer, a dreamer, who would wander off somewhere to a musical place of his own making; which proved somewhat problematic in the early years.

We often had trouble staying with him in a musical context; struggling to discern where he was headed and being in sync when he changed the dynamic without warning.

In the end, our sound evolved around me following him on his little forays to the other side, while our bass player, who earned the nickname “The Rock”, lived up to his moniker and never wavered, never strayed.

All the while, the two of us would chase each other, in a rhythmic sense, around his solid groove.

While our bassist would stay with us dynamically, he never strayed time wise and stayed right on the beat, allowing us to stray either ahead or behind him.

It was a completely different approach, but it produced a sound that was favorably accepted wherever we played.

Now, let’s apply all that drivel to a piece of written work.

We know that there are several factors that have an effect on the pace of a passage; the words used, the emphatic pitch of the phrasing, the length of the sentences and the punctuation.

On a larger scale there is the paragraphing, the shifts from dialogue to narrative summary, the viewpoint and the setting.

I’m probably forgetting some, but you get the idea.

Where we may err, in my opinion, is when we attempt to focus on one or a small group of these things to set the rhythm and stick everything else right on the beat, so to speak.

We approach the passage as a member of the band, when we are actually the composer and arranger.

Now remember how I said, in both those examples above, the manipulation of the metric approach by the individual musicians gave those groups an overall definitive sound?

Well, upon reviewing the books I have considered since starting out on this literary journey of mine, I have come to the realization that our arrangement of all those aforementioned features of our writing becomes our style.

When we start out, we are possibly being too rigid in our application; I know I was.

The secret lies not in keeping all our technical methodology in perfect synchronization, but in weaving those technical devices around one another.

This is no mean feat, I realize that. It’s hard enough just getting everything correct, let alone fiddling with the timing variables of each part.

Therein, however, lies the secret to establishing our style, I think.

When writing a piece of dramatic action, do we look for ways to ease off the tension with a couple of nuances?

In so doing, is it possible to underline the tension of the moment with a contrast, rather than everything working to push things along?

Is it possible for our hero to be distracted by some abstract observation as he wrenches the car around yet another obstacle?

The seconds he spends in contemplating the irony of the flash of a speed camera as he hurtles by with bullets flying past him could be the thing that puts the reader, suddenly white as a ghost, into the passenger seat.

I acknowledge that I am a beginner in all of this and I hope no one is offended by me stating what may be patently obvious to them from the outset, but I was struck by the possibilities this realization presented and felt compelled to share in case anyone else found it interesting.



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