5 Tips to Develop Your Musical Timing

Jun 28, 2017

A strong, reliable sense of rhythm and timing is an important aspect of any music making endeavour. In fact, a steady tempo is one of the easiest ways to tell an amateur from a professional. Even as an audience, our ability to feel the beat while listening to music is subtle, but extremely powerful. So much so that any deviations from the rhythm are immediately noticed and can give the audience an uneasy feeling that things aren’t quite right. For this reason, if you want to become a successful musician, developing a strong sense of musical timing is extremely important.

Now, there’s a long standing myth that you either have rhythm and timing, or you don’t. And those that do can sing and dance and play music, while those that don’t are forced to awkwardly stand with their backs against the wall, simply listening. But to quote a Gorillaz song, “Rhythm, you have it or you don’t, that’s a fallacy.”

A sense of musical timing is not something only those “born” with it can do. Anyone can develop their sense of timing with just a little effort. So, this week we’re going to be looking at 5 easy ways you can improve your sense of rhythm and timing everyday to improve you music.

1. Start With a Recording

The very first thing you should do when you decide to work on your timing is record yourself playing a full song, beginning to end. This will give you an honest assessment of where your timing is now. If you listen carefully you should be able to hear the parts where you’re slowing down or speeding up. Listen closely for each place you made a mistake with the tempo. There might very well be a lot of places where you’re not keeping time like you should. That’s okay! This is only the beginning, and if you follow the rest of the tips in this list, you’ll quickly improve. Don’t beat yourself up if your recording is full of mistakes. Keep it around for motivation to improve.

2. Play With a Drum Machine App

Do this as often as you can; every time you practice, if you can manage it. While this is essentially the same thing as playing with a metronome to keep you in time, it’s a little bit more engaging than the simple boring ticking of the metronome. Drum apps usually offer a more entertaining full drum set back beat for you to play over. For an added experience, if you’re able to plug your phone into a stereo, your drum app will have a much fuller and louder sound. With a decent stereo it’s like you’re playing with a real drummer!

That being said, some beginner students might find a drum app too distracting. It’s okay to use a simple metronome if you prefer. Metronomes, since they are stripped down versions of the tempo, with no real distractions, can also train you in timing in a very “clean” way.

3. Drum While Listening

Whenever you’re listening to music, be it on the train, or in the office, or at work, start drumming to the beat. Drum on your legs, click your tongue, or snap your fingers. Whatever you do, count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… when you do it. The more you do this the more you’ll notice when you’re dragging or rushing the tempo. The more you practice with your listening music, the more you’ll find yourself drumming exactly on the beat. You’ll be able to transfer 100% of this skill into your music making, and you should see an immediate result!

4. Tap Along While Playing

You’ve probably noticed that most musicians bob their foot up and down in time with the music as they play. This is one of the oldest and most effective ways to stay on time. Many websites and articles that suggest this technique seem to focus only on guitar players, but any instrument that doesn’t have foot pedals (and even some that do) can benefit from this practice.

Some find it easier to do from a standing position, and if your foot gets tired, it’s okay to switch to the other. And if you want to add in even more fun, and play two instruments at once, you can use a foot tambourine! Exactly like it sounds, a foot tambourine is a small, half-tambourine that straps over the toe of your shoe. As you tap along to the beat, it jangles. It’s a fun and challenging way to make sure you stay on rhythm, because you’ll be able to hear every stray beat.

5. Learn to Identify Different Time Signatures.

By far the most common time signature you’ll come across, especially as a new student, is 4/4. But it’s far from the only one. There’s also 2/4, ¾, 6/8, 7/8, 12/8, and many, many more. Most popular music is fairly simple, and conforms to the basic 4/4 time signature, but many do not.

One easily recognizable example of an odd time signature is the Mission: Impossible theme song. Using a classic Latin groove, the iconic theme is a perfect example of 5/4.

Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” uses 3 different time signatures: 10/4 and 11/4, and the much more common 4/4.

Rock is no stranger to unusual time signatures either. Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir” features a 4/4 time signature for the drums, but everything else is in ¾. And to confuse matters more, there’s one measure that’s 9/8.

Try listening to this list of songs with odd time signatures. Try to count the beats to figure out their unique time signature.

Bonus – When Jamming, Remember to Keep YOUR Beat

It’s important to keep in mind that when you’re playing with a group of people, you need to get used to playing on your count, not anyone else’s. Try to keep the beat in your head, independent of what your band-mates are doing. Even if your drummer slows down, or your singer starts speeding up, or whatever, don’t get caught up in their error. Keep following along to your inner beat, and everyone will eventually fall back into the proper rhythm and tempo.