Texture series: Cross rhythm

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As we continue our series on texture, I want to give you one of my favorite things today. I would call it one of my secrets but of course, it is not mine at all. I stole it from other people (in particular my jazz friends).

I think that we musicians tend to fall into certain predictable traps based on our influences. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it can hold us back from more interesting sounds. Let me give you a few examples.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the “push” (anticipation) in music, discussing how rather than placing melody notes right on the beat, we can increase interest by shifting them off of the beat a bit. Traditional pianists tend not to think that way; they line up the melody notes directly on the beats. However, if they did let go of that a bit, they would get a more sophisticated sound.

Here is a another one: last week, I posted an impromptu recording of “Be Thou My Vision” with the Merrills in the studio. On YouTube, I was interested and amused by a few who took Allisha to task for having the audacity to sing multiple notes for one syllable. As one of them put it, “there is ONE note! Just sing it directly without sliding to it or singing other notes first.”

I laugh when I read that because I must have never read that rulebook. Who says you are supposed to only sing one note per syllable? Handel must not have gotten that memo when he wrote The Messiah. And who says you can’t sing “in the cracks,” sliding between notes? Are we really arrogant enough to think that our A440 scale is God-ordained?

The truth is that singing in the cracks and using other ornamentation is far more sophisticated and interesting than what many musicians would consider “correct.” Like I said, our preconceived notions and biases often hold us back and I am going to demonstrate an example of that today in our series on texture when discussing something some refer to as cross rhythm.

Let’s say that you have a three note pattern that you want to use in something you are playing. Here are two common ways you might do that.

Note that in both of these examples, the patterns are contained within a beat. They start at the beginning of the beats and end at the end of the beats.

But what if you chose to break that unwritten rule when playing the pattern? Look carefully at this writing from a recent example of the Christmas carol “O Come Little Children.”


Start by looking at bar 25. That is the same pattern but notice that I am playing it as 16th notes, forcing the start and end of each 3-note pattern to fall into more unpredictable and interesting places.

Play it carefully, making sure that you accent the start of each beat. You will immediately see a big difference.

These three lines of the song utilize that concept a lot. For example, bar 24 is a 3-note pattern as well in the right hand (F-C-G) played as 16th notes. And then, bars 27-28 demonstrate it even more clearly.

I will point out something in bar 28. Note that I start the pattern over at the beginning of the bar. If I was continuing the pattern from the previous bar, I would have played C there rather than G. So why did I start over? I did it simply to make the music more accessible both for the listener and pianist. In other genres such as jazz, it would be common to carry this kind of thinking across multiple bars rather than encapsulating it bar by bar as I do here. However, doing this idea across bars is harder to do and a bit harder to hear.

So there is a deceptively simple idea that will change your sound and improve your texture. When playing this way, you will help yourself if you count and slightly accent the start of each beat. It will help the listener stay oriented too.