Monday, February 14, 2011

Mushy Timing Disorder: The Psychology of Bad Rhythm

by Greg Shelley
     Often, I meet a new student who comes to me and says something like this: “I’ve never played guitar, and I really want to learn to play only the songs I want. I don’t want to waste my time learning a bunch of songs that I’ll never play.” This happens frequently and I find myself explaining why I won’t teach that way—at least in the beginning.
     When a student who knows nothing about the guitar starts by learning part of, say, “Stairway to Heaven,” or “What it’s Like,” by Everlast, he or she is usually learning in a linear fashion. That is, the learning takes place in a “connect the dots” manner. The student learns to put a finger there, then there, then there, then pick that string then those strings and on and on etc. As the student learns in this linear fashion little attention is usually paid to such things as timing, rhythm and meter. So the student learns to play the song with an arbitrary or random sort of beat to it.  Although learning this way has value, if learning takes place from the beginning in this fashion, it can actually slow down the overall development of the student.
     Because meter and timing are learned without specific attention to exact detail as provided by understanding written music, the student learns to have what I would call “mushy timing.” Mushy timing results in an inability to play with others very well, since the student has learned to play to his or her own internal clock only and not to sync up with some other person or timing device. So anything the student plays may sound something like it is supposed to, but he or she especially would have trouble playing it along with a steady beat or with other musicians.
     Additionally, mushy timing tends to lead a student to quit when the rhythm or syncopation gets too complex in the song, since he or she has neither the discipline nor the understanding to work through difficult music passages. In psychological terms it could be stated: “The student becomes lethargic when confronted with complex external rhythmic stimuli due to a dependence on internal and esoteric arbitrary meter determination.”  But don't fret if this happens to you--though fretting is what we do. 
     I often tell a tale of how my timing was once so mushy that I could not stay enough on the beat to play a guitar part on one of my own songs.  I was very young, and the other band members helped me get through it.  After that I sat myself down and worked hard on curing my own mushy timing disorder.
     The cure is to stick with the basics. Learn to read enough to understand timing from perspectives other than just your own “feel.” Tap your foot in time and in meter with the song. Use a metronome, drum machine or rhythm device when learning songs and stick to the proper meter (4/4, 3/4, 6/8 time etc.) These are the most important basic do’s if you want to develop what we call “tight” rhythm and get rid of “mushy timing.”
     Ideally, students would avoid trying to learn songs too far above their skill levels in the beginning. This can cause a student to utilize right-brain or creative-only type of learning tools and thus contributes to the tendency toward self-defined timing and rhythm. Stick to these guidelines and in time, your timing will change from mushy, to tight and firm.

Copyright Ó 2010 Greg Shelley,  all rights reserved