The Woodshed

the basics:

(For purposes of these mp3 illustrations, the pulse will will played on the gourd of a berimbau that's hanging near my computer, and the other parts will be played on a half empty coffee cup here on my table.)

the pulse

this is the most basic expression of rhythm, like footsteps, or the even ticking of a clock. All the notes of a pulse are the same length, and the number of these in a minute determines the TEMPO, or bpm (beats per minute) Lots of other, busier things can happen over top of this, or not but pulse continues on it's way beneath all the hubub. One can count to the pulse, perhaps 1,2,3,4, or 1,2,3, or whatever. The clave rhythm is NOT a pulse, since all notes are not the same length. see clave for more on this.


Downbeats are notes which occur on the pulse or count. If you're walking and playing a drum simultaneously with each footstep, you are playing the downbeats.


Upbeats refer to a place directly in between the downbeats. It's as if the stick or hand playing the pulse gets midway between beats and is at the top of it's motion, preparing for another downstroke. (listen to the mp3 for clarification.)


When someone refers to a backbeat, that person is usually referring to beats 2&4 (when in four) The backbeat is important for jazz, blues, rock and roll. For practice, listen to popular music on the radio and pick out the backbeat.

simple and compound rhythms

Simple rhythms are rhythms wherein the pulse breaks down into multiples of 2. Compound rhythms are those wherein the pulse breaks down into multiples of 3.

counting rhythms

We in the west often use a system wherein we count the downbeats as numbers, the upbeats as "and" (hereinafter notated "&") and the intermittent notes as "e" (pronounced "ee") and "a" (pronounced 'ah') This divides a four beat loop into 16 parts, as 1e&a2e&a3e&a4e&a. this is enormously useful during the study phase for pinpointing exactly what the notes are and where the notes go, but it's rather like the scaffolding when putting up a building. Once the rhythm is understood, the counting is no longer necessary. Also, the syllabic basis of it unravels when compouind rhythms and more complicated combinations are approached. (for example, people have said to speak a triplet as 1-ta-ta-2-ta-ta, but I cannot do it with a straight face) for triplets or compound rhythm, I use 1ea2ea

reading and notation: should i learn standard notation?

Yes, you should learn standard notation. It's the most comprehensive way to write down the material, and knowing how to read it opens a huge body of literature up to you for study. However saying it is superior to box or any other notation is like saying perl is superior to c++... They're only languages; each has it's own uses. there are times when you asre trying to write down a rhythm ON YOUR COMPUTER, and if the rhythm is not too complex, ascii may be the best way to convey the information. Never confuse the map with the territory. Different maps may be using different methods altogether to refer to the same music.

what is ascii notation all about?

Lots of us want to write a particular rhythm, but we're at the computer. Since we're only describing sounds in time, we can use the available computer keys to describe these sounds. However if we use an unevenly spaced font, the lengths won't be the same, and the rhythm will be skewed. To make sure you can read ascii rhythms correctly choose a font like Courier or Couirier New to view the patterns. Here's an example of a pulse rhythm played with an "x", then below on a second line with an "o"

(Courier 12 point)


notice that since all the characters take up the same ampount of space, the three lines line up, and you can see where the notes of the patterns line up or coincide. Now look at the same pattern, pasted in below and changed to a variable width font

(Times New Roman 14 point)


In this example, the notes don't line up, because the "o" is wider than the "x", and the count above is ALL out of whack. This will mess with your ability to read the rhythm, so always use a fixed width font to read or write ascii notation.

should i use a metronome?