Time Keeping for Musicians

As a young drummer, I was always told that my job was to “keep time” for the band. So let me begin by saying:

this idea that the drummer’s primary role as a musician is to maintain a steady rhythm, beat or time keeping presence is not entirely true.

It is every musicians job (including the drummer) to have and exhibit good “time.”

In addition to the practical techniques of learning scales, rudiments, reading, chords, music history, etc, every musician needs to learn how to keep and maintain, be aware of, lead and follow this notion of time.

Another Time by Dale Baker.jpg

Performing and “making” music is a collaborative art form, one that is built upon the individual skills of the musicians creating it, and one that requires (like all good art does) the surrendering of those skills (or so it seems) for the greater good, in the hopes that something transcendent, good, and joyful might spring forth. Good art is greater than the sum of it’s parts and becomes “good” when each musician “surrenders” themselves in the act of making it.

As musicians we learn to surrender ourselves to time, most notably when playing with others, or with a metronome/ drum machine/ click track/ backing track, etc. As we are learning to play with others in relationship to time, it’s important that we remember to be conscious of our own internal sense of time. Knowing when to “push” or “lay back”, when to follow (another musicians sense of time, or a conductor’s visual cues) or lead the time are all skills that should be present in every musician.

All music “hangs” upon a time grid. If you do electronic music, or have programmed a midi drum machine (or used the step programming function in your DAW), you know that time is expressed as a linear construct, moving from left to right. This grid exists in all of us singularly, but is arguably more present and defined when we aim to play along with pre-recorded tracks, or with other musicians (with or without a click or metronome). Before we can truly be present playing with others, we (as musicians intent on having a solid sense of time), need to develop confidence in our own internal sense of time/ groove/ beat placement.

One way to develop this skill is by counting. Preferably, out loud. By vocally articulating where we believe the beat (time grid) is we learn to be conscious of our interpretation of the rhythm as it fits with the linear notion of time. Once we become confident in this skill (and being consistent in playing to our own “internal” grid), then it’s important to try and reconcile our confidence with the unmovable perfection of the metronome.

The goal isn’t to play in such a way to become mechanical and devoid of feeling. The goal is to retain all of our individual personality, vibe, “mojo,” “grease,” groove and feel AND play with the metronome. The metronome is there to help us be conscious of the reality of linear time as it exists when we play with or lead other musicians. Counting out loud as we practice allows us to get used to aligning our playing within ourselves, and counting out loud with a metronome allows us to get familiar with aligning our playing and our counting with a consistent and fixed notion of time, as it exists in reality and as it exists when we play with others. In essence, we learn to listen to ourselves first, and then with the aid of the metronome, we learn to listen and “meld” with others - first with the metronome, and then eventually with others.

Your voice and creativity matter. Only you can “say” the things musically in a way that you can. I encourage you to press into that. Find out who you are as a musician and keep digging. Study the greats, or don’t. What is it about music that makes you want to play drums? Chew on that for a while and focus on the joy your derive from learning how to play your instrument. If you desire to become a better musician, spend time becoming more aware of “time.” When listening to music, listen to how other musicians relate to time. Listen to where it “exists” in you, and where it “exists” outside of you (when listening to a metronome or playing along with a track, or song).

Work towards becoming more conscious of where the beat exists in every moment of your playing.

Being present in every moment, beat, fill, choice that you make will improve your musicianship and your skills. It isn’t said often enough, but time keeping is every musician’s responsibility. As you make music with yourself and others do your part to keep time as best you can with the skills you possess.