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Rhythm and number

We tend to think about rhythm in terms of number. I’m thinking specifically of the way we break up beats – 1/8 note, 1/16 note, etc.. This can be useful when organizing material.

Think about music is as an unbroken, continuous sound. Then take this sound and break it into pieces in an organized way by imposing a repetitive number sequence on it.

A string of eighths notes can be thought of as our continuous sound.

stream of 1:8


Using the number two in a specific way – by placing a rest after every second eighth note – produces this:


broken 1:8



Alternating two and three gets this:


2 plus 3 on 1:8


Right away you can see how complex this can get. You can alternate any sequence of whole numbers or fractions. Of course the longer the sequence gets, the more difficult it becomes to remember it. This reduces clarity.


Alternating values

You can use this technique with alternating rhythmic values – eighth notes, sixteenths, triplets – and get much richer rhythmic profile. Here I’ve used the number pattern 2-4-1-3 (two eighths (rest), four sixteenths (rest), one triplet (rest), three eighths). Place a rest after the last eighth note, and then repeat the sequence.




It’s not really four sixteenths, as you can see, but it sounds like that. The point is to take an unbroken stream of notes of similar or varying values and break it up in a coherent way.



So you can use a sequence of randomly changing rhythmic values, and place order on it by using a repeating number pattern.

Experiment with the length of your patterns. Longer patterns work best when the rhythmic values aren’t changing much. Shorter patterns are good with rapidly changing values.

The idea, as always, is to find a balance between clarity and complexity.



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