How to Conceptually Organize Rhythm

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

As explained in the Four Essential Building Blocks of Drumming, your rhythmic knowledge is the foundation of everything that you do as a drummer.

Like the foundation of a physical structure, the larger, stronger, and more organized your rhythmic knowledge is, the more you will be able to build on top of it.

A lot of drummers struggle with this because the foundation of a structure is invisible to the viewer.

When you look at a skyscraper, all you see is the inspiring height of the building as it shoots thousands of feet into the sky. Likewise, when you see a great drummer playing, all you see is the impressive technique and skill that they display in the moment.

This perception makes it easy to become overly focused on the latter three building blocks and forget about the most important one; the one that supports them all.

If you look at a great drummer and try to mimic his or her skills without truly understanding the rhythmic knowledge supporting it, you will continually struggle to succeed in executing it. This is why it’s important to start by organizing and building a robust foundation of rhythmic knowledge that will provide you with the skills and information you need to be a great drummer as well as the infrastructure needed to continue adding on to it for the rest of your life.

Whether you’re a complete beginner, or a drummer of 40 years who feels like you need to renovate your foundation, your rhythmic knowledge is where your true ability level is determined and organizing it in a logistical and functional way is step one.

Let’s get into it.

The Two Most Important Concepts for Conceptually Organizing Rhythm

There are two key concepts that every drummer should understand and build their rhythmic knowledge on top of:

Rhythm is an organized system similar to a written language
There is a rhythmic grid underneath the majority of music you play

Let’s examine each one a bit further now.

1. Rhythm is an Organized System Similar to a Written Language

Rhythmic notation revolves around the same principles as a written language.

There are different note values that are similar to different letters. When you put these note values together they make a beat like a group of letters make a word. When you string a series of beats together they form a measure similar to a sentence. When you put a handful of measures together, you create a phrase similar to a paragraph. Finally, when you put together a handful of relevant phrases, you create a story.

Here’s a table that sums up how written elements can be compared to rhythmic elements:

Written Language Rhythmic Language
Letters Note Values
Words Beats
Sentences Measures
Paragraphs Phrases
Story Song

his comparison is not true for every single language, but it works well for many.

If the language you speak is structured with elements equal or similar to letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs, this comparison is an effective way to clearly understand the function and structure of rhythmic elements.

Regardless of whether or not this analogy is directly applicable to your language, the main take away is that you understand that each rhythmic element has a specific function and they all build upon one another to create the system in which rhythm is structured and organized.

2. There is a Rhythmic Grid Underneath the Majority of Music You Play

Many drummers attempt to learn by ear. In order to learn by ear, a drummer listens to a rhythm and then makes an attempt to play it back without any mental structure around what it is they’re actually playing.

This method can work to some degree and is especially effective in call and response situations. However, there’s a lot of guessing involved with this approach which makes it incredibly unreliable for long-term learning and true comprehension.

With the exception of free-form or non-metered music, everything you play will have a pulse and rhythmic grid associated with it.

When you learn a rhythm or piece of music that has a defined pulse, you should think of rhythm as if all notes and subdivisions are written out on graph paper. If you’re playing a rhythmic passage that is four notes long, but you’re only playing the first and fourth notes, it’s important to understand that the second and third notes still exist – they’re just silent.

This concept drawn out looks like this:


Notice that the first and fourth notes are highlighted in orange because those are the notes that you would play. The second and third notes are still there and accounted for but they’re silent.

This concept is critical.

Learning things by ear or not understanding how a rhythm is structured gives your brain the opportunity to organize the rhythm however it wants which could be a variety of things.


Because all your brain knows is that you play two notes – the subdivision in between is a mystery.

This means your brain could organize the rhythm any number of ways such as:


As you can see, you’re still playing two notes, but the space in between is different in each one.

When you don’t understand the sub-division of a rhythm, your brain is left to interpret it however it wants and creates different variations. Once these variations are created, it frequently switches between them causing you’re execution of the rhythm itself is to be inaccurate and inconsistent.

Some drummers argue that they don’t need to read music because they can feel the beat better when they learn by ear so they “just play what they feel.”

But in all reality…

That’s the danger of learning by ear.

When you truly understand the rhythmic structure and theory behind the rhythms you’re playing and conceptualize with sub-divisions as if they’re written out on graph paper, you will be a much more accurate and precise drummer.


No matter how long you’ve been drumming, your rhythmic foundation is the most important aspects of your playing. One of the most critical aspects of your rhythmic foundation is the way you conceptualize and organize rhythm.

These two concepts are important to build your rhythmic foundation on top of because they establish both the functionality of rhythmic elements and provide you with a framework to accurately interpret the way they are structured within the rhythmic system.

If you don’t already conceptualize rhythm with these two concepts, take the time to explore them and implement them because they are essential to your rhythmic understanding and future growth.

Parting Question: Have you put much thought into how you actually think about rhythm? Has this article changed your perspective on the topic? Leave your answer in the comment section below.