Are singers really bad at rhythm?

Some instrumentalists claim that singers have lousy rhythm. Some say that singers are sloppy musicians and don’t pay attention to details. Why do they say that? Are singers really deficient when it comes to observing accurate rhythm?

I have worked with singers as an accompanist and coach for many years, and I have seen again and again that singers are not quite as accurate with rhythm as their instrumentalist counterparts. Then I get up to sing, and my own rhythmic sense deteriorates! Why is that? How can I have played advanced repertoire on piano, flute, and double bass, and then suddenly lose ground in my rhythmic abilities when I sing?

One day while working with my vocal coach, we were laughing at how I have played concertos and complicated modern sonatas and chamber music on instruments, yet I messed up simple rhythms in a song. She said that she believed that there must be something about the act of counting and the act of delivering words that is very difficult to do at the same time. That made sense to me, so I started thinking about that a lot in my singing and teaching.

We musicians are taught from an early age to “count our rhythms”, such as “1 & 2 & 3e&a 4”, et cetera. When we are playing our flutes and violins and drums we can have this internal counting going on while we play. When we sing, we must operate our instrument (vocalize), RECITE TEXT, and well…how do you count rhythms with one set of words while expressing text with another set of words? If we have a “counting” based way of tracking rhythms, we will be colliding with the text. Try to keep two separate streams of words going at the same time. See what I mean?

So what do singers need to do to learn difficult rhythms? They must practice them instrumentally, without words. Then they can count like a percussionist or pianist, either silently or out loud. They must do this until they have an internal FEEL for the rhythm, for it is only by feeling the rhythm through muscle memory that they can then devote the “talking brain” to the expression of words.

Here’s a challenge for instrumentalists who call singers “[rhythmically] stupid”. I would invite them to play their instruments while reciting a poem sometime, and see how verbally accurate and expressive the text is, while maintaining instrumental accuracy. Then let’s put them in costume on a stage and add some movement while keeping an eye on a conductor. For our classical friends, let’s have them try it in three different foreign languages, while maintaining one’s dramatic character.

I dare you.

9 thoughts to “Are singers really bad at rhythm?”

  1. Thank you Brian, as a singer and an instrumentalist and someone who teaches whilst stressing MUSICIANSHIP I could not agree more.

    Personally, I’m rather fed-up of the number of my instrumentalists making disparaging comments about my sense of rhythm. Put me in a drumming workshop and you’ll find it is absolutely fine thank you very much!

    Those little comments ‘colla voce’ ‘espressivo’ are also on the score (in addition to all the varied note heads, beams, tails and rests).

    These allow singers to allow strict time to flex. The relationship between all the rhythms must be correct, but there will need to be ebb and flow.

    Personally, when learning rhythms, I relate things to pulse. Cleve notation – a methodology that is at least 100 years old allow both singers and instrumentalists to relate the rhythm to that pulse. In most music the pulse is steady. When, as in the case of a highly passionate 19th Century Operatic Aria, the pulse ebbs and flows, provided the rhythm still relates to the pulse, the fact the singer dwells on an unaccompanied long-note, or the pulse speeds up and slows down is part of musicianship. The singer is reflecting the Zeitgeist of the Composer and the Genre.

    Now this might be a little too ‘heart on sleeve’ for those instrumentalists who want to carp from the sidelines, and you must excuse me as I’m a Soprano, and we are known when it comes to juicy top-notes that need a bit of artistic shaping to be run by heart not head; however, please understand, it is not because we CAN’T. It is because musically it is what the composer intended.

  2. I am so glad you wrote this. As a pianist, when I joined our high school concert band many years ago, I was put in the mallet percussion section. I played xylophone, tympani, triangles, marimba, etc … My sense of rhythm was often complimented by my band director and I was proud that I had that part of musicianship nailed!

    As I’ve developed as a singer, however, it’s been quite a different story, always behind the beat, always not able to keep up with melismatic passages. The worst embarrassment has been to not even feel or know that I am not getting it right until I am informed of it. For someone who had taken pride in a sense of rhythm, this was extremely humbling.

    However, the good news is that I received a huge tool to deal with this when I participated in the Westminster Choir Festival for the first time a couple of years ago. I learned about “count singing.” From what I understand, count singing is usually used in choirs, but I found it a wonderful and amazing tool to get me on track with my solo work on art songs and arias. This has been a great way to drill to help solve “the problem.”

    However, there are yet other issues with zeroing in on the pulse that I am still working to conquer. Singing is just a bit different, and being aware that work is needed in this area is half the battle.

    1. Thanks, Frances. I think your experiences are typical and people need to understand that. I will investigate “count singing”. That’s a new term to me.

      1. If you are interested in learning more, here’s a link over at ChoralNet where they are discussing count-singing: http://www.choralnet.org/view/230956#230995 I did purchase the Robert Shaw Reader, as recommended in the ChoralNet discussion, to learn more. This tool has been invaluable to me. Count singing actually facilitates muscle memory, and later, when you return to the words, the memory of where all the counts were remain and you can actually feel the count singing behind your regular singing with words when you desire to tune in to that.

        Because count singing can make a soloist too mechanical(after all, choirs need a greater degree of precision than a soloist does), once the exact knowledge of the timing has been infused, it has to be abandoned for expression. But as part of the layers of the learning process it’s an important part of knowing exactly what’s happening in the music and training it into the body.

  3. I took about a ten year hiatus from singing. I have a lot of the voice back. On difference Ibelieve that causes rhythm problem in a singer is that is that the instrument is our body, We have physical and emotional feel ing tied up in a tone or note. If it feels good we want to linger.

  4. I am an Indian Classical Music Learner. I too struggled a lot when I tried to learn western Classical Music. What I found the most effective is we must learn any song this way.

    1) Listen to it once, first time just learn the lyrics.
    2) 2nd time listen again! now, stop concentrating on the lyrics and try to capture the details possible in the song. Like is it an 8 beat song? or a 12 beat? What are the various instruments playing behind the scenes.
    3) 3rd time listen holistically. In the whole step do not humm the song along with the vocalist in the recording. Do this listening exercise around 10 – 12 times. Don’t sing along on that day. Next day Don’t play the song , nor try to sing it. Just try to recall it in your mind. Do this until you get each line right.

    finally try to play with the human instrumentalists. We use Percussion and the Pitch box, which is why we get comfortable with beats in Indian Music soon. But playing with an Human percussionist is a very good tip. I was pathetic with beats I am doing a very good progress with beats in just 4 months.! Do not, never till you get beats right sing with out a Metronome.

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