I’ve been researching the problems of metronomes in recording music for almost a decade now. Across the board, I’ve found that the best grooves (songs that make you feel something) were almost always made by doing tape loops and then recording everything to that loop rather than using a classic click track. (Several Toto songs come to mind…)
However, this only works for recording and doesn’t really teach the theory of groove very well. That means that new musicians are still at a loss on how to interpret musical time. I’ve been troubled that there is no way to really even begin to talk about musical time. Kids learn to count time with numbers and then wonder why their music sounds stunted and mechanical. I think this stops many would-be great from ever realizing their potential.
Indian Ragas and Latin Claves have a much better way of communicating rhythmic accents than traditional western counting (very important to get odd times sounding good…) and jazz uses a concept of “swing time” where &s are rushed. (How much swing is hard to quantify accurately) But none of these traditions have an easy way to communicate musical time beyond their specific genre. We need a better way to teach musical time…
In modern music recording, we still use the classical concept of a pulse as the basic unit for metronome. Even modern electronic music starts by creating a pulse and then building a song off of that.
If this sound monotonous to you, you’re not the only one! Many modern music theorists wrongly assume that the lack of rubato is to blame for the flat emotion. In reality, it’s the lack of micro-timing…
Micro-timing is still a very misunderstood topic. It’s kind of like micro-tonality applied to rhythm. Classical musicians are still taught to count 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. and adding just a little bit of flux in how fast the pulse goes. (called rubato) But the concept of musical ebb and flow in a measure has not occurred to most of these musicians.
Meanwhile, Latin American and African music take a much more drastic approach by using a clave. (clap pattern with unique spacing between each beat…) This is more of a grunt pattern repeated instead of a consistent pulse. It is more how textural drummers approach counting when they create great feels in the studio. But, these patterns are hard to write down and almost impossible to name. You just have to know that such and such a song uses such and such a clave pattern. Computers can’t understand these rhythms easily and so the concept is largely lost in modern music.
Arabic and Indian music use a verbal syllabic representation of rhythm similar to speech patterns. (called ragas) Their language is complex and can take a lifetime to master. Very few have a good grasp of the depth of ragas as a way to represent rhythm and it is almost completely lost on a beginner musicians — even in India! While ragas can be written down, they are simply too complex for most musicians to understand. So even though they have a solution to the problem of transmitting musical feel it is not an easy transmission to learn or understand.
Each of these traditions have their own ways to communicate micro-timing as an intrinsic part of each culture’s musical theory. But there isn’t any representation of rhythmic feel that works for all the musical styles. Because of this lack of cohesiveness, most composers are content to drop back to basic ideas of musical rhythm counting four beats to a measure in even pulse.
The more adventurous resort to recording rhythmic loops or imagining clave beats as a frame for their ideas. Even most good EDM producers today use the same idea of recording their performance to pre-existing beats. While those tracks are often muted or deleted later they still leave their mark serving as a template for musical micro-time within the composition.
So how can we share a common musical time?
In DAWs, having editable patterns for micro-timing shifts solves the problem of translating complex rhythm. But this idea usually relies on the rhythmic prowess of audio engineers and throws new musicians who have never really played to a track quite that way. Most musicians (even advanced players) just slap a click track button on and then wonder why their music lacks life.
Using loops for micro-timing only works for the rhythmic elite who claim to here down to the millisecond where the beat should be in every measure. In reality, very few people in the world have that type of accurate timing. Perfect Rhythm is even more rare than perfect pitch. When these beats are used it is still difficult to communicate to good musicians about the ideas of feel and what we are trying to collectively achieve.
How do we perceive musical time?
I’ve been working for several years now to develop a unified counting system that works for all musical style. My theory is based on duration of tone rather than percentage of time elapse in the current measure. Rather than counting with numbers I count with grunts similar to both raga and clave but MUCH simplified and applied to the pulse-based metronome that has received far too much attention in my estimation...
My ideas are partially based off the psycho-acoustics of language learning. Paul Pimsleur noted in his research on language learning that we pay more attention to the end of words than their beginning. My theory is that we do the same thing with rhythm by paying more attention to the duration of a transient than we do to its start time. Because each beat is so quick we don’t even think about it, but many musicians allude to this in passing…
For example, I’ve read articles and watched YouTube videos from several well known producers lately talking about how compression affects the rhythmic “feel” of the song. From a scientific perspective, compression affects the attack and release of rhythmic time. While compression affects both the attack and release of rhythmic transients, the alteration to feel seems to be governed much more by the release while the attack has more to do with how much excitement exists in that track.
We find more evidence of perceptual understanding based on duration of rhythm in the study of orchestral conducting. One of the most important things that a conductor is taught is how toe bounce the baton and elbow in a way to help an entire crowd anticipate the next beat. The more you study conducting the more you realize how many nuances there can be in rhythmic inflection that emote in major ways.
The last case I will cite is that of a tambourine. While it’s transient is rather short, the attack is less definite because many of the jingles land at slightly different times. A tambourine player can make or break a groove in about three shakes. I suggest that this is due to the inconsistent ending rather than the begging of notes. In laymen’s terms this means how we perceive rhythmic “feel” has more to do with when a sound dies off than when it begins.
Introducing Oona Pana… (My Simplified Approach)
As I’ve alluded to, my idea uses slight variations in the duration of the usual pulse to provide hints at the framework for underlying rhythmic variation. My system could easily be added as comments above the time signature on existing sheet music to explain the groove as well as the change of speed and measure length. The idea is to use three spoken syllables. (Oo, Na, and Pa) Each has their own rules which allow things to roll off the tongue naturally and provide structure to anticipate the next beat. The rules are easy to learn and the rhythmic phrases that are produced can span every genre of music.
The rules are as follows:
- A phrase MUST start with Oo
- Na MUST follow another sound
- Pa MAY follow itself once (e.g. Papa NEVER Papapa)
- Words are two or three syllables
While these rules seem simple they allow you to represent almost any basic rhythmic frame in any time signature without fail with only a few basic words.
ONLY FIVE WORDS: Oona Pana Papa Oonapa Panapa
— This is the entire dictionary of Oona Pana rhythm!
Here are a few examples of classic beats:
- Tito Peunte “Oye Como Va”: Oonapa Pana Pana Oona Panapa Pana Pana
- Santana “Smooth”: Oona Pana Pana Papa
- Michael Jackson “Billie Jean”: Oona Papa Oona Pana
- Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone”: Oona Pana Oona Pana
- Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight”: Oona Pana Pana Papa
- Gwen Stefani “Rich Girl””: Oonapa Panapa Pana
- Kelly Clarkson “Breakaway”: Oonapa Panapa Panapa Panapa
- Mission Impossible Theme: Oonapa Panapa Pana Pana
- Lee Greenwood “God Bless the U.S.A.”: Oona Pana Oona Pana
- Pink Floyd “Money”: Oona Pana Pana Oona Pana Pana Pana
- Toto “Rosanna”: Oona Pana Pana Papa Oona Pana Pana Papa
- Nat King Cole “L-O-V-E”: Oona Pana Oona Pana
- Johann Strauss “The Blue Danube”: Oonapa
- Dave Brubeck “Take Five”: Oona Papa Oona Pana Pana
- Benny Goodman “Sing, Sing, Sing”: Oona Papa Oona Pana
- Vangelis “Chariots of Fire”: Oona Papa Oona Papa
You get the idea…
I’ve been surprised at how easy it is to express very odd times:
- 15/16: Oonapa Pana Pana Oona Pana Oona Pana
- 11/8: Oonapa Pana Pana Oona Pana
- 23/16: Oonapa Panapa Pana Panapa Pana Panapa Pana Panapa Pana
And there are several variations of these odd times that that you could do based on the accent that you want to create with these times.
Caveats and More Research Needed
There is still one problem that Oona Pana does not address very well. That is multinomes where you impose one meter in the space of another. (e.g. 2-on-3, 4-on-5) Ragas deal with these and clave expresses some simple ones. But generally, the more advanced multinomes just have to be broken down and memorized much like rudiments on the drum line.
There is no “right” way to describe musical rhythms. It’s surprisingly difficult to express some of the best feels even with Oona Pana. I expect groove will remain somewhat of a mystery for at least another 1000 years. But I hope that my introduction of Oona Pana gives some inspiration to the next generation of rhythmist looking for an easier way to understand and share musical time.