What Every Drummer Needs to Know About Time

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

picture of a wall clock

Rhythmic knowledge is the first and most fundamental building block of the 4 Essential Building Blocks of Drumming.

It is the foundation of everything you do as a drummer because it is the base that all of your drumming knowledge is built on top of.

If you build your rhythmic knowledge haphazardly without care, you walk a thin line that will limit your growth as a musician. If you build your rhythmic knowledge with a plan and deliberate actions, you will develop a strong infrastructure that you can expand and build upon throughout time.

But before you can jump into the theory and application of rhythm, you must first understand the most critical element that we work with as percussionists: time.

Time may be something that you think just exists and is irrelevant to drumming.

However, since everything we do as percussionists is based on and around time, it’s critical to have a fundamental understanding of what it is and how we relate to time as musicians.

Let’s get started.

Why is Time Important for Drummers to Understand?

Time is the most essential element that we work with as percussionists.

Without time, there is no music because there is no horizontal motion where rhythmic events can occur.

In order to understand time as the foundation of music, two essential questions must be explored and answered: (1) what is time and (2) how do we experience time? Exploring and answering these two questions will help create a foundational understanding of time as it relates to rhythm.

Let’s take a look at each question individually.

What is Time?

Time is a very complex topic and there are a lot of mysteries surrounding it but despite what we don’t know about time, we do know that time is a type of movement.

Time is a movement in the sense that it currently moves in one direction: from the past, to the present, to the future. Although some physicists believe that time is capable of moving backwards from the present to the past, we currently only know how to experience time as it moves towards the future. As a result, time can be represented as a directed line that moves things in the world from the past to the future.

As we move with time, we experience the present. If time stopped, we would be frozen in the present and unable to travel to the future or the past. If time was sporadic and moved forwards and then backwards at uneven ratios, we would have a very hard time understanding how we progressed to the future. The consistent, continuous, and directed movement of time is what allows us to utilize time as a measurement.

In order to use time as a measurement, at least two events must be observed or created: one event to mark a beginning and another event to mark the end. If a measurement begins at one event with no subsequent event to end it, time will continue on without measurement. The most common way to use time as a measurement is through seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc.

It’s crucial to understand that these events are not time it self but rather measurements that represent time.

These measurements allow us to artificially structure and regulate time in order to create a more secure feeling of comfort in day-to-day life.

The capability of measuring time has led scientists and physicists to discover gravitational time dilation. Gravitational time dilation was first suggested by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity and was later confirmed by experiments testing general relativity. Gravitational time dilation is the effect of time passing at different rates depending on the gravitational potential. The stronger the gravitational potential (the closer to the Earth’s core), the slower time moves. The weaker the gravitational potential (the further away from Earth’s core), the faster time moves.

The ability to measure time has also shown that the Earth’s rotation is irregular and causes the length of a day to vary. Because time is not absolute and the irregular rotation of the Earth causes days to be different lengths, organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) adjust clocks in order to synchronize local and global measurements of time.

Based on this information, we must acknowledge that time is a directed movement that is regular but imperfect and can be measured upon the occurrence of two or more events.

How do We Experience Time

In order to answer the second question and evaluate the way in which we experience time, we must start with the innate senses that we obtain as humans because it is through these senses that we experience the world.

The interesting thing is that time is not sensed though any of our major senses.

Time cannot be smelt because time has no scent. It cannot be seen because it obtains no visual qualities. Time cannot be heard because it obtains no audible characteristics. And time is not physically tangible as it has no physical assets.

Despite the lack of sensible qualities in time, it’s intriguing that time can still be “felt.”

As mentioned previously, time is not tangible because we cannot stick our hands out and touch time or brush up against it as we walk down the street. However, we do have a sense of feeling time.

For example, when talking about the length of time an activity takes up, it is common to hear people say, “that hour felt so slow” or, “it felt like time flew by.” These common experiences lead me to believe that time can be felt in a non-tangible way.

If we can only experience time though feeling it but are not able to touch it, I think it’s fair to say that time is felt on a conceptual level.

If time is experienced on a conceptual level, is the sense of feeling time created in our own minds and sped up or slowed down at our own subconscious discrepancy depending on the task at hand?

Quite possibly.

And this thought raises a question – is time internal or external?

In other words, is time an internal phenomenon that each and every one of us creates inside of our own minds, or is time an external phenomenon that consistently surrounds us and moves at the same rate but is independent of human activity?

Through evidence of prehistoric creatures and carbon dating testing, it is clear that time definitely existed before humans existed. If time existed before human consciousness, it is evident that it can exist without human consciousness. Time, therefore, is independent and external of human existence.

Since time exists independently of human consciousness, obtains no sensible qualities, but is still experienced by humans, I believe that our sense of time is experienced through perception. Furthermore, since perception is dependent on the individual, the way in which an individual perceives time dictates the way in which they experience time.

To put this in perspective, acknowledge how an hour spent doing something dreadful may seem like two hours whereas an hour spent doing something pleasurable may seem like half an hour. Despite measurements of time being inaccurate, an hour is roughly an hour for both events, yet the difference in perception can significantly stretch or shrink the experience of that time depending on the individual.

This is to say that time is experienced through our perception of an event and these perceptions can vary from person to person.


Time is the most essential element that we work with when creating any type of rhythm.

Understanding the arguments above will help you establish a framework of time on which you can build a strong foundation of rhythmic knowledge.

With a great database of rhythmic knowledge and an understanding of how time relates to music, you’ll be able to manipulate your rhythms in ways that are more artistic and meaningful. You’ll be able to develop a better sense of pulse and tempo control as well as have a better understanding of how the audience perceives your rhythm.

How to you think about time as it relates to music? Were there any statements in this article that you hadn’t thought about before?