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Rhythm Chunking 3: Riffs

Riffs are generally thought of as the repetition of a short melodic unit, or a short chord progression.  The rhythm always stays the same. Conventionally.

Let’s not be conventional.


Melody + rhythm = riff

First, we make a five-note melody.

rhythm chunk melody


Now take those five notes and superimpose them on different rhythms. I’ll use the ones we made in the last posts (The last chunk is new. I needed something to complete the five-note melody I started on the second note of the second-last chunk).


rhythm chunk riff2


Superimposing the five notes on different rhythms creates a nice kind of tension. It allows you to predict (as a listener) what the five notes are without being able to predict when they’ll repeat.


Make your own

Make your own stuff. Create a short melody – anywhere from 4 to 8 notes. Then make 3 or 4 different rhythms and string them together in different ways.

  • rhythm 1, rhythm 2, rhythm 3
  • rhythm 3, rhythm 1, rhythm 2
  • rhythm 2, rhythm 1, rhythm 3
  • etc.


If you spend some time superimposing your melody on these different rhythms, you’re bound to come up with stuff you like.


Long melodies

Once you’re comfortable doing this with short melodies, try it with long ones. Restrict yourself to one rhythm here. If the melody is really long, it can be difficult to hear when it repeats. Using different rhythms makes that even more difficult, and the whole thing can lose focus.

But do some experimenting and see what works. Start with one rhythm. Then try it with two.  Go crazy and use three. Stay sensitive to when it stops sounding good.




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Rhythm Chunking 2: Chord progressions

In the last post, I talked about possibilities for creating different rhythms by taking smaller, 3 to 5 beat chunks of rhythm from a longer stream of notes. I superimposed chords and pitches on these rhythms to create a rhythmic chord progression, a riff, and part of a solo.


Let’s focus on chords in this post. The first example uses a single rhythm chunk repeated three times.

rhythm chunk with brackets - chords1


Now string different rhythmic chunks together using those same chords.

rhythm chunk with brackets chords


Creating variety

By the way, I’m not trying to make this sound awesome. I’m just randomly plugging in chords to make a point.


The point is that you can create a crazy amount of different progressions by using the following procedure:


  1. Take a few rhythmic chunks out of a stream of notes.
  2. Repeat one of those chunks with a single chord or with different chords.
  3. Mix the chunks and superimpose a progression of chords on the result.


Use the progression from number 3 on a different combination of rhythm chunks.


Limit yourself

Try using just three chunks. Combine those chunks in different ways to create a variety of different combinations.



Chunk 1, Chunk 1, Chunk 1

Chunk 1, Chunk, 2, Chunk 3

Chunk, 2, Chunk 3, Chunk 1


Don’t let these get too long (Chunk 1, Chunk 2, Chunk 3, Chunk 1, Chunk 1, Chunk 3, Chunk, 2).  This sacrifices focus and doesn’t communicate directly. Experiment with length and see what you like.

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Rhythm chunking

By chunking I mean taking a chunk out of a rhythm you’ve made, and using it as the main action.


You can create chunks from a longer rhythm, say 4 or more bars.


rhythm chunk original



Three chunks

For now, take chunks of 3 to 5 beats from this longer rhythm. Here’s a 4-beat chunk.

 rhythm chunk 1

Where did I find this chunk in the 4 bar phrase above? What beat does it start on?


Here’s another one.

rhythm chunk 2



Here’s one that doesn’t start with a rest. It’s not 4 beats long, either. Remember to experiment with different lengths.

rhythm chunk 3



Make that last chunk a strumming pattern…

rhythm chunk with chords



…or change the notes and create a riff.

rhythm chunk with brackets riff



You can also use this idea to create part of a solo.

rhythm chunk with brakets solo



So the basic idea here is to take a longer rhythm, take a chunk out of it, and then repeat that chunk to create chord progressions, riffs, and solos.  The range of possibilities is endless.  I’ll look at using this idea in a chord progression in the next post.


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Erasures 2

The next step is to take the patterns you’ve made (see last post) and play them in all the possible orders.

Some examples:


  1. Original + erasure 1 + erasure 5
  2. Erasure 4 + erasure 3 + erasure 1 + erasure 6
  3. Erasure 5 + original + erasure 2 + erasure 4 + erasure 3


Get the idea?

You can probably see that the number of possibilities is fairly large. I’m not going to write them all down, but you can. Or just write out three, and then play them. Tomorrow, do a couple more and play around with those. Really, all you have to do is one a day.


New stuff

Working in this way gives you new stuff to explore everyday.

Some of what you make you may not like, but some you will. And that stuff can turn into entire pieces, or just a really cool groove. In any case, your rhythm playing will get better, and you’ll develop an attitude of experimenting.

You’ll become fine with failing because you’ll discover that finding stuff that works is worth looking at the stuff that doesn’t.


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Rhythm: Erasures

Arnold Schoenberg said that the eraser was the most important part of the pencil. I’m there.



Take that rhythm we were working with in a previous post.




Erase the first note of the rhythm that you wrote.  I’ll call this act of erasing an erasure.

rhythm small scale erasure 1

Play that.


Now erase just the second note.

rhythm small scale erasure 2

Play that.


Erase the third note, and you get this.

rhythm small scale erasure 3


You now have 3 new rhythms. Simple.


Continue this erasing process with the 4th, 5th, and 6th notes.


Combining rhythms

We’re not done. Play the original rhythm and follow it immediately with the first erasure.

rhythm small scale erasure 4


Loop this. See if you like it.


Now play the original followed by the first and the second erasure.


rhythm small scale erasure 5

Loop that for a while. This one is interesting because it’s three bars long, which messes with people’s expectations (people tend to expect 2 or 4 bar phrases).


You get the idea. Erase one note but keep the others. There are six notes in the original rhythm, so you’ll have 7, one-bar rhythmic ideas when you’re finished (the original and 6 erasures).


Longer rhythms

Take the original rhythm and add each erasure to it one at a time. This will give you 7 different rhythmic patterns.


Here they are:

  1. original
  2. original + erasure 1
  3. original + erasure 1 + erasure 2
  4. original + erasure 1 + erasure 2 + erasure 3
  5. original + erasure 1 + erasure 2 + erasure 3 + erasure 4
  6. original + erasure 1 + erasure 2 + erasure 3 + erasure 4 + erasure 5
  7. original + erasure 1 + erasure 2 + erasure 3 + erasure 4 + erasure 5 + erasure 6


Play around with this. You’ll almost certainly find some really cool rhythmic patterns.


And then check out the next post. We’re still not done.

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I’ve talked about duration in any post where I’ve mentioned rhythm. This is a bit tricky to talk about. But interesting. Really interesting.


Two types of time

We live by two basic types of duration: clock-time and experiential time. Clock-time breaks our lives into chunks. Experiential time happens when we “lose track of time.” At these times we experience time going by more (or less) slowly than we thought.


We experience time as a flow instead of chunks.


Time and listening

When we listen to a piece of music we generally can’t tell how much time has gone by (unless we sit there counting seconds). We experience time based on our relationship to the music.


If we like what we’re hearing, time flies. If we hate it, it takes forever. In either case, we don’t separate time into equals portions. Instead we mark it by noticeable events in the music.


Music markers

So if we hear the guitar start we unconsciously create a time-marker. When the voice comes in, that’s another time marker. Then we might notice the bass, or the keyboards. Maybe the horn section plays a couple of shots in the verse.


All these things interact, occurring at different points in time.  The cool thing about music is that we notice some of it on the first listen, and something else on the second listen. And something else on each subsequent listen.


And then one day, we just stop listening.


Different time-senses

But while we listen, we get a different sense of time each time we do. If the song-writer or composer has done a good job, some of the stuff they’ve written will be “hidden.” “Hidden” just means supporting stuff like strings that sneak in and then disappear. Or a bass line where a couple of notes jump out of the texture.


Sometimes we notice these things, sometimes we don’t. And this means the song seems a bit different each time we listen to it. This is partly because the things we notice become time-markers, and our experience of time shifts on each listen.


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