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Thread: Timing issues

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    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Timing issues

    During these COVID times, Iíve been spending a lot of time playing along with recordings and working on improvisation. Every once is a while I come across a song that seems to me, to have odd timing. Maybe itís me, but am I missing something? An example is the Carter familyís recording of Hello Stranger. What am I not getting?

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    I often find that when I learn a tune from notation and then practice it with a metronome it fails to follow a recorded tune. Bands often seem to play it their way. They perhaps wrote and learned the tune with out notation or a metronome. The writer that committed it to paper did the best he or she could to duplicate the band’s style.
    Play it your way. They did.
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Has nothing to do with your ears; the Carter Family were notorious for adding or subtracting beats. I've been looking for other examples that are as obvious as Hello Stranger, but my memory doesn't conjure one up right now. I would suggest listening to My Dixie Darling, The Winding Stream, or My Clinch Mountain Home to hear examples of "free" rhythms, with different numbers of beats per measure.

    Depending on viewpoint, you can consider it examples of musicians without formal training ignoring the proper rules, or of the wonderful idiosyncratic stylings possible in orally-transmitted "folk" music. I sorta prefer the latter, and feel that the Carters' sometimes-irregular rhythm is part of their charm.
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    If you have doubts set your mandolin aside and tap rhythm with your hand or a pencil counting beats. On this song Maybelle's guitar stayed pretty solid in timing during the solos. The vocals seemed to get far away. Listening to the guitar backup for the vocals i could not quite tell whether the count was kept throughout and they just shifted timing or if beats were added and subtracted. They played together enough they went on and off beat together.

  6. #5

    Default Re: Timing issues

    Thatís such a cool song, thanks.

    I get the feeling that the guitarist backs off also because sheís following along down the trail too. Chord changes when it changes -or it changes on the beat after each final word in the phrase. Itís nice too because the singer has the freedom to add or change words that may have different numbers of syllables to fit the occasion.

    I guess a lot of folk songs before the twentieth century were in whatever time it took to finish the phrase. Each phrase with itís own time signature.

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    Registered User Bunnyf's Avatar
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    If you have doubts set your mandolin aside and tap rhythm with your hand or a pencil counting beats. On this song Maybelle's guitar stayed pretty solid in timing during the solos. The vocals seemed to get far away. Listening to the guitar backup for the vocals i could not quite tell whether the count was kept throughout and they just shifted timing or if beats were added and subtracted. They played together enough they went on and off beat together.
    Carl, counting is exactly what I tried to do. I thought maybe I was hearing it wrong. Counting it out though had me all over the place. I was wondering if others heard a pattern that I was somehow missing.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    I went through this revelation a few weeks ago. I was working on Sunny Waltz which had a particularly vexing few measures. In frustration, I ran it through the amazing Slow Downer. Following the sheet music and the tune note by note I found the CD version and the sheet music version were different. My mandolin teacher went through it with me and helped me change the notation. Magically, everything went smoother. He said this happens all of the time. Tunes get changed in the recording studio to make clean recordings. Coincidentally I heard one of Monroe’s band mates from the 60s describing how Monroe changed Gold Dust on the day they were recording. Yeah, I'm working on that too but I have decided to follow the notation. Monroe can do things with a mandolin that I can’t even imagine.

    The only useful thing I can say is to repeat the axion, “Make it your own.”. Play it as it suits you.

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    Registered User Jon Hall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    There are several measures in Hello Stranger that include 2 extra beats making those measures 6/4 instead of 4/4. The Carters liked it that way! I find these odd rhythms in other songs and tunes like Clinch Mountain Back Step and Ground Hog.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Monroe's Mule Skinner Blues. "Juss keep a boom-chuck going, and you change when i change." I imagine this to be the directions given by Mr. Bill, if any directions were given.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    The different versions of "You Are My Flower" by the Carters have always driven me nuts. Just when you think you have it you try to play it with someone else.....everyone does that little stutter riff in there a bit different and the timing goes right out the window. Then again, it might just be me.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Quote Originally Posted by ajh View Post
    The different versions of "You Are My Flower" by the Carters have always driven me nuts. Just when you think you have it you try to play it with someone else.....everyone does that little stutter riff in there a bit different and the timing goes right out the window. Then again, it might just be me.
    “The Weight” has been like that for me. I listened to many recordings of The Band performing it. I counted it out and thought I got it just right, but when I go to play it with others, I find we’ve all got different ideas on just how that part goes “...and, and, and, you put the load...”.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Quote Originally Posted by Bunnyf View Post
    “The Weight” has been like that for me. I listened to many recordings of The Band performing it. I counted it out and thought I got it just right, but when I go to play it with others, I find we’ve all got different ideas on just how that part goes “...and, and, and, you put the load...”.
    I was going to mention The Band. Not just “The Weight”, but all of their tunes. Same with playing Hank Williams tunes and many or perhaps even most bands. Again I say play it your way as they did.
    This is why I so envy players that have the ability to learn tunes by ear and never need to look at the music on paper.
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Keep on the sunny side drops a beat for one bar.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Do you think that most players even out these kind of idiosyncratic songs? Or are there certain ones that I should know about where most everyone has agreed that, odd as it may be, they’re gonna play the song true to the original timing?

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    Registered User mingusb1's Avatar
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Quote Originally Posted by Bunnyf View Post
    Do you think that most players even out these kind of idiosyncratic songs? Or are there certain ones that I should know about where most everyone has agreed that, odd as it may be, theyíre gonna play the song true to the original timing?
    Not to generalize too much but I find that when these kinds of songs are played in bluegrass settings they often get "evened out", whereas the oldtime crowd typically adheres to the unevenness. There's value to learning it the way your "source" does it. You can always adjust or learn a different version if the situation calls for it. And when you lead a song you do it the way you want to and help the other players pick it up, if need be.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Their timing, their harmonies are all their own and people loved them.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Personally, I love songs or tunes with "crooked time" but when people of varying skill levels play together, adding or dropping beats can be a stumbling block. I think it's sort of human nature for folks to want to "even it out" in those situations.

    Sometimes I think crooked time is a result of either 1) personal interpretation or 2) the best some people can do with their skill level, especially when trying to play and sing at the same time.

    If you're playing in a group being led by a person who plays a particular song with crooked time, it does force you to listen closely and be nimble, which is a good thing.
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Something else is to notice where the beat is. Some songs and tunes keep perfect time but come in slightly ahead of the beat, or sometimes a little behind. They never stray from the beat, but their relative position is not directly on it.

    That's where the concept of "the groove" is - picture a V shaped groove where the point is on the beat itself, perfectly, but we are free to play anywhere in the groove. Some stay on the down slope, some on the up slope, and most don't "stay" anywhere. The music is in time, the beat isn't changing, but where in the groove the music sits is subject to change.
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Lest the uninitiated think that this is entirely a bluegrass & country discussion:
    - The G-Dead's "Uncle John's Band" has recurring 2/4 measures in among the 4/4s.
    - Jefferson Airplane's (Marty Balin's) "Comin' Back to Me" has some particularly idiosyncratic 3/4 measures under the "I saw you ..." vocal sections. Long before I saw the sheet music, I figured how to play it without realizing that the 4/4 jumped into 3/4 (or 6/8?) every so often. It just sounded right.

    Lots of other examples, but these two stick out to me.

    Side comment: Got to see Balin solo, backed by lead guitar & drums, in NJ seven or ten years ago. Didn't expect it to be one of the most memorable ever! "Comin' Back to Me" got a major standing ovation, causing him to comment: "Whoa! You guys must be REALLY old!" So sorry he's gone.
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    I did a singing course once where we had to begin some phrases at different times but the phrases were different lengths so that every now and then weíd all arrive at the same place at the same time. Interesting polyrhythms in between.
    Some of the phrases had meanings that came together like that too.

    The difficult thing was to trust that youíd began at the right time so that the ending was going to be good.
    It wasnít long before I was thinking more freely about rhythm but it needs continuous practice.

    I think it would be fun and instructive to try that in a group using simple OldTime melodies and harmonies on mando.

    -like going on a singing course and then applying the techniques to our favourite instrument.

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    This is an interesting discussion. I'm enjoying the thoughtful comments. Sorry for going on at length, but this is an important topic.

    To put timing issues into perspective, music and singing have a head start on music notation by tens of thousands of years, just as speech and storytelling are ancient when compared with reading, writing, and dictionaries. Furthermore, our western system of musical notation was first developed for European liturgical music sung by groups. There were two aims to the notation system: first, to direct people to reasonably accurately imitate sounds; second to coordinate group singing of a particular style of music, so that singers came in at particular times and not randomly. Therefore, creating a prescribed system of timing goes back to the roots of written music. With the development of formal systems of church and courtly music, the rules became further refined.

    However, a great many folk (oral, traditional, passed-on) music traditions were kept alive by self-taught or informally-trained musicians. This was how most people made music, unrestricted by formal rules about timing, pitch, etc., though they may well have had to adhere to different folk rules, e.g., "You young people play that too darn fast. Slow down!" If the particular tradition didn't demand that musicians stick to strict tempos, they didn't. A great many contemporary musicians coming out of folk traditions play "crooked" tunes, dropping a beat or throwing in an extra one, seemingly at random. If the people who are their usual audiences, perhaps relatives and friends, and who understand the musical tradition, accept their playing, these musicians are playing properly within the tradition. But trained musicians often found many blues musicians difficult to play with. Some of the old timers were used to playing alone, not having to coordinate their music with others, while some could play well with peers who were immersed in the music, and didn't have formal notions of timing. A great deal of traditional music was dance music. Again, if the local dancers could do their traditional dances, the musicians were playing properly.

    Formal training in western music involves many rules and assumptions that come out of a particular system. Problems arise when a trained musician moves outside that system. A great many people with formal training never question their own assumptions about how folk music should sound, let alone attempt to understand the aesthetic of the people who play the music they admire. Instead, they change the music in order to fit to their expectations. They seem to think, "If she (the tradition bearer) had my musical education, she'd know that there should be an even number of beats throughout this tune." To further complicate matters, as has been said by others, in order to play with people trained in the more formal system, the music has to meet their expectations by having a certain number of "bars" and a certain number of "beats per measure". These concepts are abstract ideas, meant for writing music on paper and may be foreign to the folk musicians who created the tunes. I find that the more formal training I get, the harder it becomes to just imitate what I hear. Instead, I think, "Wait a minute, where's the fourth beat?" At times, I learn uneven tunes by ear so I don't lose that skill.

    In summary, folk traditions aren't usually governed by the rules of formal western music. "Crooked" timing isn't a mistake; it's part of a style. Learners, from outside a tradition, can deal with the change in styles by imitating the original music, or by making the music conform to the structures of the more formal style, among other approaches. Making the music conform means moving away from the tradition, and may sometimes be disrespectful to both musicians and their traditions. It also may keep a person from learning the subtleties of a particular tradition, as they try to fit the music into their own expectations.

    (And, to further complicate matters, there are both traditional and trained musicians with poor senses of rhythm.)
    Last edited by Ranald; Aug-25-2020 at 4:01pm.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
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    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Registered User Tom Haywood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Timing issues

    One of the real difficulties I see in jam sessions is that songs that do not strictly adhere to "even" counted time tend to go in the ditch pretty quickly, unless everyone there has studied the tune and have pretty much agreed on how to play it. It works great if everyone there is steeped in the same genre. But most jam sessions I attend have people who spend their time in different genres. Studying the tune and agreeing on how to play it makes the session more of a band practice than a jam.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Haywood View Post
    One of the real difficulties I see in jam sessions is that songs that do not strictly adhere to "even" counted time tend to go in the ditch pretty quickly, unless everyone there has studied the tune and have pretty much agreed on how to play it. It works great if everyone there is steeped in the same genre. But most jam sessions I attend have people who spend their time in different genres. Studying the tune and agreeing on how to play it makes the session more of a band practice than a jam.
    I agree, Tom. I do like to play with others, and don't claim the competence to follow unusually constructed tunes in a jam session. Life is full of compromise.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    Quote Originally Posted by Ranald View Post
    ... "Crooked" timing isn't a mistake; it's part of a style. Learners, from outside a tradition, can deal with the change in styles by imitating the original music, or by making the music conform to the structures of the more formal style, among other approaches...
    I'm reminded of Charley Patton, who rarely played a 12 bar blues when he was playing solo. He often put in a couple of extra beats at the end of a line, and wound up with "13 1/2 bars". But when he recorded with Son Sims, he stuck to a straight 12-bar pattern.

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    Default Re: Timing issues

    I think the music sells better if itís more uniform, people know what to expect and are happy when they get what they do expect.
    And thankfully, from the musicianís point of view people mostly donít expect too much!


    I think itís easier to play this style with the singing voice because most people have a reasonable idea of what the last word in a specific phrase will be, and therefore they will know when the chord change arrives, and the chorus begins even if itís on 5/8 or 7/8 or whatever. Itís like beginning the song at the end of each phrase.

    Itís going to be a bit harder to judge where the turn point is if someoneís doing a solo on mandolin. Most solos resolve to something at the end, especially if itís a recurring theme in the tune or a recurring style of the player. I like it when a melodic phrase doesnít have to be constrained by the number of measures or beats.

    For impro itís probably one player at a time though.

    And playing like this seems like it would be pretty tiring though because youíd have to really listen to each soloist to be able to come in at the Ďrightí time.
    Irregular call and response between two soloists could be really exciting to hear though.

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