Rhythmic differences in musical styles

*This post is predominantly me thinking thru things I want to teach this weekend. Most examples will be from rep we are singing this quarter.*

One of the tricks for getting good at Aural Skills/Ear Training is to know what the expectation for a given idiom is. This is because your ear can often hear “right,” “wrong,” and “not wrong, but weird” before you can necessarily identify such things on the page. For example, if you know what chords usually happen in folk or bluegrass music (and there really are only 3 or 4 usually), when something sounds new, interesting or weird, you know for sure that it isn’t one of the 3 or 4 chords that are the standard. And, conversely, if everything sounds “normal,” there probably isn’t anything other than those few chords, and in a certain order.

This same thing can help with learning rhythms. Each era of the western-Europe-derivative-art-music, aka “classical” music has its own details, but for now we’re going to concentrate on their over-arching similarities, because the difference between classical music and modern “pop” music is much greater, and easier to spot. At the end, I’ll also briefly cover some jazz – particularly what “swing” means in terms of rhythm.

Before reading, you might want to briefly review note values if you don’t have them in easy to access memory: https://functionalanalysis.blog/2017/07/02/basic-rhythm-reading/


Classical rhythmic norms:

Most classical pieces, which includes in this case pieces that are imitating or drawing on a classical background, will have mostly just quarter notes, and half notes, and eighth notes. Depending on the mood, meter, or subgenre, one or more of these might be more or less prevalent, with more or less sixteenths or whole notes.

The best example of this from this quarter’s rep is “If Music Be the Food of Love.” Other examples from last quarter include all the caroling items (Jewish rounds shown), and the Rachmaninoff – Bogoro. This idiom has few or no ties (looks like a slur, but between two of the same note), and those notes that are tied are tied for length or a specific dissonant effect.[†]

If Music Be:

music be







Pop rhythmic norms:
Again, making huge generalizations here. There are many different kinds of modern pop music (since maybe 1950? or maybe the 1920s?) and many of them draw consciously or subconsciously on various classical ideas. Some pop styles look very similar to what you see above. However, the majority of what we’re singing this quarter falls into a category that has quite a different rhythmic profile.

One of the things that makes pop music sound different than classical is that emphasized notes and down beats often come before the actual beat. In classical music, we’d hear this as syncopation, it’d sound weird, and look a little out of place on the page. In pop music, it happens all the time, and is weird and hard if things fall on the beat. The beat is still kept steady by the rhythm section (drums, bass etc), but the vocal line often comes a half a beat earlier. I’ve included snapshots of “Will You Still Love Me?” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

Will You Still Love Me

still love me


Can You Feel

can you feel


Love Will Keep Us Together

love keep together


You can see that many of the notes are tied over the barline or in the middle of the bar. Two eighth notes tied together are the same length as a quarter note, so if you’re not used to looking at the sheet music for pop songs (and many of aren’t!) it can look way more complicated than you figured singing along to the radio. It’s important to keep the rhythms precise, because unless you’re really used to what the style is, one’s likely to get dragged back on to the beat where the bass and drums are.

A lot of musical theater pieces fit in this category, but also a ton of music theater is pretty close to classical, so you have to look at any given piece.


Jazz: swing

This is another genre altogether, with probably almost as many subgenres as the other two. Much pop music will also borrow from jazz, but the main examples from our recent concerts are any of the Cole Porter tunes. The main concept as a basic rhythmic idiom is the swung eighth note. Usually, they are written on the page as regular eighth notes, but the perform is expected to play them long-short, somewhere between a tripletty rhythm and a dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythm.[‡] Often the intro will be purposely not swung to highlight this rhythm, as in “Let’s Do It”:

lets do it


Last quarter jazz tunes included “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”


and “Handful of Keys.”



Of course, rhythm can get way more complicated, interesting and weird, but hopefully these overarching ideas can help get a handle on reading these tunes faster.

[†] Another general rule for classical music: Rhythms are more likely to be long note on the beat. If you have a rhythm that is short-long, the short note is more likely a pick-up. If you have a rhythm that is long-short, the long note is probably on an accented beat (which changes depending on meter and what level of rhythm we’re talking).

[‡] This is not the first time in history composers wrote one thing and meant another. In particular, the Baroque French opera overture style is written with dotted-eighth/sixteenth note rhythms, but is generally played with the short note even shorter, something like double-dotted eighth/thirty-second.

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