Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why You Must Have Rhythmic Tension in Your Music

What is rhythmic tension?

In this video, Robert talks about rhythmic tension and why it is important for your musical expression.

Released on February 12, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin. This is Today's subject is why you must have rhythmic tension in your music. Rhythmic tension. What is this? What am I talking about?

Well, you know it's a funny thing. I'm going to demonstrate for you why it's so important for rhythmic tension in music and how you create it. By taking a piece of music that is a dance form, a waltz, there must be some distortions to the rhythm. Now you think, "My gosh, to distort the rhythm. Isn't it sacrilegious? Shouldn't you play exactly what the composer wrote?"

Well, truth be known, the composers only wrote these notes down as a guideline, a skeleton of the composition you must flesh out. So for example, if I were to play a brief excerpt of a Chopin Waltz with no rhythmic distortion, just absolutely straight, where you could play it to a metronome, this is what it would sound like.


Now, I did my best job I could at creating the shadings, the expression and playing faithfully to the score. But it sounds lifeless, doesn't it? Why is this? Well, there has to be motion in music and I chose a waltz for good reason, because dance music and a waltz obviously is a dance form by its very nature is based upon motion, the motion of the dance. A waltz has a strong first beat, one, two and a third beat that kind of leads to the next first beat. So you get a one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two. And it's not just the emphasis, but it's a pull from one beat to the next. And this rhythmic distortion is essential to be able to get the right feel, not just where it's obvious in 19th Century music with rubato, or in this case a valuable, Chopin Waltz.

But even in earlier period music, not in such an obvious way, but it has to be there in order for the music to come to life. So listen to that same brief excerpt of this Chopin Waltz, allowing this rhythmic liberty or distortion or whatever you want to call it, and hear the difference for yourself.


Now, how do you know if you're distorting rhythm too much? You certainly don't want to play different rhythm from what the composer wrote. Well, here's the key. In the first example, it could be played right to the metronome, spot on every beat. The second one, well, it would not be possible to have a metronome ticking and playing along with it perfectly. There's never a gain or loss of any beats. And more importantly, if you tried to tap along, you will feel the pulse.

So I'm pulling you with me in the performance, and that's what makes it so compelling. So that's why you must have this rhythmic variety in your music, and you could call it distortion, but it is absolutely essential in order to bring your music to life.

I hope this has been interesting for you, and I welcome differing viewpoints in the comments below. And if you haven't already subscribed, you know the drill, ring that bell, and you'll get all kinds of videos here from, your online piano store.

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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tineke * VSM MEMBER * on February 12, 2020 @3:33 pm PST
How would you apply this to playing on a cello?
Robert - host, on February 12, 2020 @5:23 pm PST
What I have described applies to all instruments. Naturally, when playing with other musicians, you must all be on the same page! The amount of rhythmic nuance is dependent upon the musical style and context.
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