Rhythm is natural.
Your heartbeat, your breath, the tide going in and out, the rising and setting sun…from the largest celestial bodies to the smallest cells in our bodies, every part of our universe has rhythm. It’s so fundamental to our existence that we live it every moment without thinking about it.
If you want to go looking for your own sense of rhythm, it’s easy to find.
Think about a piece of music you like, or play a song you enjoy that has a good beat. Jam along with the music. Don’t worry if you look or feel silly. Groove however you like to groove. You might bob your head, clap your hands, sway your hips, tap your feet…it’s all fair game.
Now notice the shapes you’re tracing with your body. If you attached a pencil to the parts of you that are moving and held paper to that pencil, what shapes would you be drawing?
Probably some variation of these:
Your bobbing head and tapping foot trace arcs, just like a pendulum or hanging fruit swaying in the wind. Your clapping hands trace circles, just like the hands of a clock or the spinning of the earth. If you’re walking around taking dance steps, you’re tracing waves, like the ocean’s tides.
Circles, arcs, and waves: these are the universal shapes of rhythm.
The way we teach music today is built around a centuries-old system of music notation.
I work with singers. Whether I’m teaching a new voice student how to phonate or music directing a new Broadway musical with an experienced musical theater performer, I help people tell stories using a combination of music and text.
In every context, my primary visual aid for teaching new songs is sheet music written in a traditional form of western music notation, which looks like this:
You probably recognize this notation system. It’s the most widespread form of music notation we have, and it’s very useful. It’s great at showing us when pitches happen, and it leaves space for many other important pieces of information, including expressive elements.
But music is an embodied experience, not just a written art form, and so any music notation system, including this one, will be incomplete. And the missing elements from this form of notation are essential to singers.
Traditional music notation shows rhythm one-dimensionally. You could rewrite all the rhythmic information in the score above on a one-dimensional timeline:
This is a problem for singers because they engage with two kinds of rhythm at the same time: the rhythm of language and the rhythm of text. One dimension of rhythm can’t show the interplay between two systems of rhythm. It’s only one dimension, after all!
Let me show you what I mean:
Imagine I ask you to walk a mile with me. You imagine a nice, flat trail, perhaps a sunny day, something simple and not physically strenuous.
In your mind, the path probably looks like this:
You bring your sneakers and show up expecting a pleasant jaunt.
But when you get there, the trail looks like this:
“That’s not a walk, that’s a hike!” you say. “I should have brought hiking gear and snacks!”
“But I told you it was a mile!” I say.
Traditional music notation is like a map that only tells you about the mile-long walk, not about the terrain itself. It tells you what the distance between notes is, but it tells us nothing of the journey along that distance. For a singer, that journey is where all the interplay between musical rhythm and language rhythm happens.
Traditional music notation does not encapsulate the contemporary singing experience.
Music and language are both rhythmic forms of communication. They’re equally complex and nuanced, but they follow quite different rules. When we combine them in song, they interact with each other in unexpected and exciting ways, and a new, multilayered system of rhythm emerges.
A common example of this is syncopation. Contemporary singers often sing an emphasized word or syllable on an unaccented musical beat. Consider the syllable “work” of “firework” or the word “worth” in the same example from above, from Katy Perry’s “Firework”:
As a storyteller through text, those moments in the song merit some kind of emphasis, but the energy of the musical rhythm in that moment is hard to emphasize. I see actor-singers struggle with moments like this all the time. The demands of the music and language feel contradictory.
I’ve struggled to communicate as a teacher in these moments, and I’ve seen colleagues of mine struggle in similar ways. We play the music again, we try to demonstrate ourselves, we show it on our bodies. We tell people to “just feel it.” This often works, but there’s always a gap in my teaching, a place where my words can’t reach my singer’s actual performing experience. There’s a way of engaging with the material that I can’t access within a traditional music education paradigm.
Performers know this instinctively; no notation system could ever capture the entirety of what they do. But there’s a problem: we’ve become so reliant on traditional music notation as the best way to communicate music visually that we’ve limited our thinking about music theory to match the structure of existing notation. We’ve gone so deep into the intellectual pursuit of music that we’ve stopped pursuing other ways of engaging with this experiential art form.
In other words, music notation gave us one way to think about music theory, and we’ve gotten so used to that one way of thinking that we’ve forgotten it’s possible to think differently.
Singers need a new paradigm.
Let’s come back to that same excerpt of “Firework” that I showed you above:
What if we wrote it like this?
Look at this visual while you sing along to the song in your head. Follow the journey it takes you on. What do you get from that experience? What elements of the music do you notice?
This notation shows you a journey from one word to the next. It shows a sense of gravity and motion. By representing rhythm in two dimensions, it engages with the physical experiences of rhythm and the interplay of textual emphasis and musical beats. Put simply, it helps a singer embody the experience of telling a story through song.
Do you recognize the circles, arcs, and waves we talked about earlier? Those fundamental rhythmic shapes are what make this visual easy for anyone, regardless of their music theory background, to understand.
I imagine myself teaching a singer to sing “Firework” with this visual in hand. Instead of telling them to “just feel it,” I can say, “Look how high the syllable ‘work’ goes,” or “this syllable explodes upward,” or “notice how the ‘work’ floats over that next beat as you sing it.” I might have been working with those same images mentally before, but now the ideas are tangible, so I can share them directly with a singer and make them actionable.
This graphic is one example of a visual musical language I’ve created called WordWaves. WordWaves shows singers a new way to think about music, one that focuses on the interplay between language rhythm and musical rhythm. Because it derives organically from the fundamental shapes of rhythm, it’s accessible to anyone, and it’s actionable, meaning you can use it to collaborate with a fellow artist or alter your own performance.
Most importantly, it challenges musical storytellers to rethink what they may have long considered to be the essential elements of music theory. Quarter notes and key signatures certainly matter, but what if the shape of a WordWave matters just as much? How can you learn differently? How can you perform differently? How can you collaborate differently?
WordWaves opens the door for musical storytellers whose learning styles don’t work so well with traditional music theory, which is very mathematical. It opens the door for other musical cultures whose work doesn’t translate well to traditional notation to be studied, shared, and developed with as much detail and respect as any other form. And it challenges both musical storytellers and the people who teach them to engage more deeply with the actual building blocks of their art form.