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Modular Phonetic Rhythm…Welcome Back to The Anderson Files

Chuck Anderson

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The concept of rhythm is simple. It’s the duration of a note, a chord or a pattern.

Rhythm is integrated into every facet of music. A melody is a sequence of pitches with rhythm. A chord progression is a sequence of chords with rhythm. Rhythm impacts Melody, Harmony and even Lyrics. It’s also a subject in and of itself. Rhythm is so intuitive, that it’s often overlooked as an independent topic of study. 

The significance of rhythm goes back before the earliest recorded history. Whether it was logs, stomping feet or hand clapping, rhythm seems to have been the first musical element known to primitive man. 

The difficulty in the study of rhythm has always been its abstract nature – and its mathematical approach. Rhythm has traditionally been taught as a function of math, particularly fractions. Though accurate, this approach has missed one of the most fundamental facts of rhythm.

Rhythm is a sonic language and is, as such, phonetic not mathematical in nature.

The average student exposed to the math orientation of rhythm has rarely absorbed the essence of rhythm. He or she rarely becomes proficient at sight reading rhythm. This often remains a lifetime barrier to the developing musician. 

Though rhythm can be explained in mathematical terms, this approach does not give you a practical command of the sounds of the rhythms. Rhythm is a series of sounds! How can these sounds be organized? 

OK… now Modular Phonetics

Modular refers to the interchangeability of rhythm syllables and Phonetics refers to the sound of the rhythm syllables. Phonics has always been the key to sound in language. Without phonics, we could not pronounce words. We could not hear the sound of the words. Without Modular Phonetics, we can not hear the sound of rhythm. Contrary to popular opinion, being good at math does not guarantee or even indicate the potential for musical proficiency. My observations over the last 45 years have supported the theory that musical tendencies are often the outgrowth of communication skills, such as language. Music engineers often show high aptitude in math but musicians do not necessarily share this aptitude. 

There is a strong correlation between the ability to spell and strong fundamentals in phonics. Phonetic skills allow us to “sound out” words, even words that we’ve never seen before! We understand the principle of sound as it applies to phonetic combinations. The “sight” of the letter combination triggers a reflexive “sound” reaction. If rhythm could be broken down into a system of phonetic units similar to the syllables of language, then rhythm would become an easily recognized and applied aural language. 

Modular Phonetic Rhythm is based on 24 basic rhythm syllables. These rhythm syllables vary in length from 1 note to 6 notes and from 1 beat to 4 beats. The system is divided into 4 levels based on the subdivision of the beat. Level I does not subdivide the beat. This is the level in which all notes are struck only on the downbeat. Level II divides the beat into 2 parts. Level III divides the beat into 3 parts. Level IV divides the beat into 4 parts. The levels do not express progressive difficulty, just progressive subdivisions of the beat. 

To illustrate, take the word umbrella. This word could be expressed as 8 letters or as 3 syllables. Treating the word as 8 letters is similar to traditional rhythm teaching. A rhythm pattern could traditionally be described as a note lasting one-half beat followed by a note lasting one beat followed by a note lasting one half beat. The “sound” of the rhythm is not part of this equation. But using the syllable parallel (umbrella has 3 syllables), the rhythm can be grouped into a phonetic syllable that does have a sound. Now, rhythm can be reproduced in the preferable “eye-ear-hand reflex” – the eye sees it – the ear hears it – the hands execute it! 

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