Rhythm in piano music

When someone hears the word ‘rhythm’, they might immediately think of hand drums, percussion, hand clapping and they might feel that, as far as they can see, there is no rhythm in piano music, played solo. If we examine the components of any song, vocal or instrumental, we will become aware that rhythm is what guides the song and we will be able to ‘hear’ the rhythm even if it is not ‘played’. This is true whether we play from sheet music or we play by ear.

The Melody

Melody notesThough this word is used often, many people don’t know that this is the element that identifies the song. It is a sequence of different pitches that give us a tune. It is the reason why someone next to us can hum, and we can identify what they are humming. It is unique, in that, if someone whistles the melody of a song and we do not recognise the song, it is likely that they did not whistle the melody correctly. A piano is a melodic instrument. This means we can play, accurately, a sequence of notes that identifies a song.

The Harmony

Harmony is heard, when the pianist plays more than one note at a time. Usually the harmony notes are played at a lower pitch than the melody line and further left on the piano. Melody is usually played in the right hand, and harmony can be played with additional fingers of the right, or fingers of the left. Harmony has toChords in harmony be studied in relation to chords which complement the sound, and are arranged to fit the style of music. In vocal performance, harmony is heard in a choir.

The  RhythmRhythms

Rhythm in music, is a foundation element in music, in that it gives us the duration of each note or chord. If the melody is correct but the rhythm is not in sync with the melody, the songs will sound like noise and confusion. Rhythm is determined by a time signature, where the song is played in beats of four, three or two counts. This beat is determined from the outset and is usually maintained throughout the song.

Rhythm is the element that causes a singer to listen to an introduction and start singing at the right time. It is the element that keeps a band or orchestra in sync. Any musician will tell you that they are constantly counting when they play (look at the foot tapping). An audience will see a pianist is performance and enjoy the music , but they might not be aware that the pianist is counting all the way, even in classical music.

Music develops

In the old days when people used to hear piano music alone, there was rhythm. With the coming of jazz, drums were added and over the years hand drums and trap sets have become staples of any band. Popular music moved from being ballads by Nat King Cole to head bobbing jazz to rhythm and blues in the 1940’s and rock, which carried a distinct hard-driving beat. Later this developped into funk, pop,  hip-hop and many world rhythms.

Although music has grown to become more groove- based in almost every setting, piano music still holds huge appeal. It is the leading instrument of most bands. It is the only instrument that displays melody and rhythm.

Band leader

There are pianists who play straight regular pieces, but there are also pianists who are able to move their fingers in sequences and in syncopations to incorporate the beats and to keep the vibes of the song. Their performances show the interplay between melodies, harmony and rhythms. Enjoy the expressions of Herbie Hancock as he plays first without rhythm, and then is joined by the other musicians. THE RHYTHM WAS THERE FROM THE START.

When you play your piano, do you only read the notes, or are you constantly counting in a given regular rhythm to make the song sound right ?

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  1. asmithxu

    Rhythm is actually surprisingly tough for me. I am always counting, but it is not unusual for me to get ahead of myself or behind. It seems easy, but has been much more challenging that I expected, especially the half notes and quarter notes etc.

    Perhaps I just need practice. Do you have any good practice exercises for mastering rhythm?

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi ,

      I understand your concern. Many times we lose the count because we are concentrating on getting the notes right. The best way to do this is to use a metronome, put it on a very slow beat, and clap the rhythm before you play the notes. The click of the metronome keeps you aware of the beat, and the working out of the timing helps you get the notes played at the right place. It takes a bit of effort at first but you can get into this very quickly.

      Thank you for your comments. Best wishes !!!

  2. momsmith78

    You are correct because the first thing I thought of when I read “Rhythm” was tapping or hand clapping.
    I never knew that a musician is counting all the way through a song even in classical . That’s very interesting to me.
    Do you prefer just plain piano other instruments along with it?

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Thank you for your comments !!! I love doing piano only, because I am totally in charge. There are times when I prefer to have a drummer. Those times are when I am playing something rhythmic for a long time, like latin american songs, reggae, soft rock. The drummer takes care of the rhythm and leaves me free to improvise. 

  3. Idara

    The post was very interesting particularly how it enumerated vividly the use of both left and right hand fingers in playing both harmony and melody .

    In playing a certain song on a different musical instrument along side the piano, which distinct characteristics will be used to differentiate the instruments ?

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi Idara, each instrument in a band has a main function. The drum keeps the count, and therefore the rhythm, so that all the instruments will play in sync with that beat. The guitar might play a strum, which fills in between the melody and the drums. The bass guitar plays in league with the drums and gives the whole song the vibe. The melody might be on piano and/or saxophone. All of this might vary, depending on the style of each song. Thanks for your comments Idara.

  4. Chidiking88

    This is just a unique article review. For me, this article brought back my good sweet memories of the piano. I’m a good fan and handler of this instrument. However, there are usually certain challenges in learning rhythm that every piano player has to deal with and several of those have to do with counting specific rhythmic patterns that may be more complicated than the basic quarter notes. Thanks for writing this review. 

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Hi. You are right. There are several more complicated rhythms that are made up of more than quarter notes. Quarter notes are like the basics, and students start using them and later learn how to relate them to notes of other value. Maybe you need to start playing again and bring back some of those memories into the present, with an aim to play all the songs you really love. Thank you for your comments.

  5. hussaain

    This is highly motivating and I can tell you I kept on falling in love with music on daily basis because of your creative posts.

    You really have a good line of teaching. Music is changing everyday and we need coaches like you to help keep us up to date. Thanks for the eye opener

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Thank you Hussain. I hope you now understand the role of rhythm in music.

  6. Chrissie Spurgeon

    If you play music without any rhythm, it just doesn’t sound the same. 

    Rhythm makes all the difference to any music, whether or not it is accompanied by drums etc. Every type of music depends on rhythm, each type of music has its own individual rhythm which differentiates it from all other kinds of music. Rhythm is part of life, starting with your own heartbeat!

    Very many thanks for your post

    Chrissie 🙂

    1. Joy (Post author)

      Yes Chrissie, change the rhythm and you change the feel of the song. Some people listen to their favourite genre because they like that rhythm and how it makes them feel. We all thrive on rhythm in our bodies and in our regular habits. That is what makes our life the way it is. Thank you for your comments.


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