Rhythm, the Groove and the Feel

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

Rhythm is the heartbeat of music. It has much to do with establishing your song’s mood and atmosphere. Rhythm is motion, and the feel of the motion should correspond to the feel of the words, to bring life to the meaning of the message. A gentle message calls for a gentle beat. A strong message may need a strong beat. Any song needs energy. Even a quiet song needs a quiet intensity, and rhythm is the pulse, the heartbeat, that keeps music alive. 

Several terms have to do with rhythm, some of the most common of which are tempo, rhythm pattern, groove and feel. Some of them get interchanged, but they don’t all mean exactly the same thing. (If someone has a different concept of what some of these terms mean, we won’t argue. Some are pretty loosely defined. But for the purposes of our discussion, we’ll use these definitions.) 

• Tempo simply means the speed of the music, as measured by a metronome—so many beats per minute, or by indications such as “slow, moderate, fast,” etc. There are Italian musical terms to define tempo, but this is an informal course, so we’ll stick to English. 

• A rhythm pattern tells us not only how many beats there are in a measure, but also where the accents fall, as in One and two and three and four and ... Or in the case of a double beat: One-y-an’ a two-y-an’ a three-y an’ a four-an’ a ...  Or maybe it’s a shuffle beat, using dotted eighth and sixteenth notes: a one, a two, a three, a four, a ... It also shows us where the syncopation is, if any. All of these can be written down. But now we’re getting into the more subtle gradations—groove and feel. 

• A groove is as real a musical value as any of the others, it’s just harder to define because there aren’t any standard musical notations for it. A rhythm pattern can be played in several ways: loose and laid-back, or tight and driving; buoyant and on the beat, or spongy and unsettled. “Loose and laid-back” is not necessarily an indication of ineptitude on the part of the players. Some songs sound best that way. “Spongy and unsettled” is another matter. It usually means that some of the players need to “tighten up and relax.” One player in a rhythm section needs to be recognized as the captain of the groove, whether it’s the leader or the drummer. If every player is a law unto himself, what you have is anarchy, or “spongy and unsettled.” But if everybody locks into the groove laid down by the captain of the groove, it feels good. 

One mistake some eager but unseasoned musicians make is to confuse speed with groove. We knew one praise band who would constantly try to whip up their audience into a state of excitement. Every song was a headlong rush, accompanied by loud exhortations to praise the Lord with everything in us. The worship leader would shout, “Let’s give 110% to the Lord!” It was that extra ten percent that caused the trouble. Everyone felt rushed, pushed, manipulated, driven. Buddy Owens calls it “worship with a gun to your head.” From a musical standpoint, what was missing was groove. In some cases the tempo, or speed, might have been right, but it felt nervous and frenzied. If they had just settled back a little and found the groove, their music could have been effective, because they were talented musicians. 

In our School of Music Ministries International worship workshops, where the three of us taught together, our band used to demonstrate this principle by stringing together eight bars each of three well known up- praise choruses, all done loudly at mindless breakneck speed, then segueing right into "Roll Out the Barrel ( and we'll have a barrel of fun." " The audience would break out in surprised laughter.  Then we would break it off and Jimmy would say,  “What’s wrong with that picture?  ... We might as well do that—it’s all in the same spirit. It’s all hype.”Then we would demonstrate each of those three choruses with its own proper tempo and groove, in carefully worked out head arrangements, bringing out the feeling of the message. The audience got the point. 

• Feel. Now we come to the subtlest one of all. Whatever skills you develop as a player or singer, develop feel. Playing the right notes isn’t enough. Feel is paramount. Feel is indefinable. Feel is about nuances and subtleties and inflections that can’t be written down on paper.  It comes only with such long hours of practice that the player becomes one with the instrument and the instrument becomes an extension of the player’s thoughts. Feel becomes instinctive, and it defines the difference between an ordinary performer and an artist.  As Jeff Crabtree has said, “Nuance is the highest level of technique.” 

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