Category Archives: Rhythm

Slow Down, You’re Going Too Fast

Many students across the country use the commendable repertoire from Rock School‘s graded books for the performing components of Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher Music. One of the advantages of the CD which comes with each book is that pupils can play along with a professional accompaniment. This is only a snag when the song concerned is up tempo. By the time a pupil is sufficiently skilled to play along, the primary reason for doing so is no longer relevant. In such cases, I’d recommend slowing down the original track using two free programs:

  1. iTunes from Apple
  2. Audacity from Source Forge

Follow the steps below:

  • import CD track(s) into iTunes (free download from Apple)
  • to check that they will import as wav files (the best sound) follow the route below:
  • Edit / Preferences / Advanced / Importing
  • then check that the pull-down window is set to wav
  • mp3 would work too but the sound is not as good
  • Apple’s own format called AAC (advanced audio coding) will not work in this procedure!
  • download Audacity free of charge from Source Forge
  • Then open a track in Audacity
  • Before doing anything, the program needs to know which part you want to change – in this case it’s the whole track so Select All (short cut Ctrl+A)
  • Go to the Effect menu and go down to Change Tempo
  • be careful not to choose Change Speed – as this will alter the pitch of the notes too – it’s ok for a laugh, but you’ll be in the wrong key!
  • until you get used to this, I’d recommend just using the slider rather than entering figures in the dialogue boxes – you can see the figures change as you do it.
  • experiment a few times and you’ll see how much you need to go – the faster the original song the more you’ll need to slow it down to be able to play along
  • Remember that when you open a tune in Audacity you haven’t lost the original file – Audacity simply makes a copy in its own style e.g. song_name.aup – which then can’t be opened in any other program

Timing and appetite

I’ve often wondered how chefs cope when timing their own sustenance while preparing food for others. What could be less appealing that cooking for dozens of people after eating a meal? What could be more distracting than being surrounded by other people’s food when ravenous? Then there’s the art of timing the various elements of a person’s main course to come together at the same time while also


How many stumbling blocks are there between the instrumental teacher’s vision of home practice and the reality? Take the idea of isolating an individual phrase for concentrated practice. The pupil needs to be sure:

  • where exactly to begin and end
  • how long they will have to get back to the beginning
  • how many times are required to ensure improvement

Then there are questions of tempo:

  • beginning slowly enough to rule out the risk of entering false data into the memory
  • increasing gradually
  • keeping a steady beat within each repetition

You could jot down suggested metronome marks for the pupil to use. However, there may be stumbling blocks:

  • no metronome at home
  • access to an online metronome driving the household up the wall if the computer is in a family room
  • even if they own a metronome – exasperation at stopping, adjusting and recommencing every few seconds = possibly even dropping the instrument

Alternatively, you could do this in class – this particular example, created in Sibelius and exported as a midi file, takes only 35 seconds. Even running through it 3x in class would only take 1′ 45” and you could see the improvement taking place. Moreover, you could see the pupil seeing improvement taking place.

Experimenting with it yesterday I discovered a couple of tips:

  • enter the increased metronome mark in the space between phrases – not at the beginning of the new phrase – so that the pupil can hear the increase before playing
  • choose a suitable place to stop and, if necessary, insert a gap between repetitions
  • consider differentiated versions – creating alternative versions with more or less extreme increments will take less time than starting pupil’s out on the wrong one

While I’m pleased to have stumbled upon this idea, I couldn’t believe that I’ve had this software for years and never thought of it before. In the words of Homer Simpson click

The sound of si-ence

In the days before broadband was commonplace, interrupted video streaming, with breaks in sound and vision, was a regular annoyance. If only it could be more lifelike. Well it turns out that life is not like that at all. It seems that the brain is constantly filling in gaps and correcting inaccuracies for us – you’re probably all familiar with the famous spelling research from Cambridge University.

It appears too that the ears (and the brain’s processing of their input) are also constantly helping us out. This was demonstrated in an experiment published last year by Makio Kashino of NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Atsugi, Japan. He made a recording of the sentence “Do you understand what I’m trying to say.” He then cut tiny slices out of the recording and the resultant silences rendered it unintelligible. The next step was to replace these silences with “white noise” and people were once again able to make out what was being said. Miraculously, the sense of it was not even lost when it was cut up into 50-millisecond slices – and each one reversed. You can hear the audio samples here (note – they take several seconds to load).

So, what is it about silence that is so off putting? As a musician, my feeling is that it’s about “flow.” If the flow is uninterrupted, listeners will get through to the end somehow – regardless of wrong notes. However, silences (or spaces) grab the attention of the listener impeding their sense of flow – in fact, that’s what they’re for. They’re often used at the end of a phrase, section or piece to break up the flow and forewarn the listener of the end so that, when it happens, it brings with it a feeling of inevitability. This sort of thing seems to be grasped effortlessly by pupils in their first lesson.

Have a listen to the following three very short files of the same well-known phrase of music and see which you find more off-putting.

Without spaces       Without spaces but inaccurate       With spaces


My experience of software leads me to view programs as being in the following categories:

  1. expensive programs with more features than you really need
  2. expensive programs all of whose features you need
  3. cheap programs which perform a limited number of functions normally found in more expensive programs
  4. cheap programs which promise to do a few things and do them excellently
  5. free – open source software (more on this in a later post)

I recently came across a fantastic program in the 4th category which does exactly what it says on the tin – and a few other things besides for a mere £25. It is called Transcribe! The program was written by Andy Robinson and is produced by his company Seventhstring.

Transcription is the art of working out tunes by ear – either to write down or, more commonly, to play. The problem is that in quick pieces, some details are too quick to hear. Transcribe! allows you to slow down the music without altering the pitch. It opens wav or mp3 files without you having to make a choice. Slowing down can be done by clicking pre-set percentages or by entering the precise metronome speed you would like (traditional metronomes are calibrated in increments of approximately 4% and some of the pre-set leaps may seem too drastic for some people). If required, you can insert a decimal point to increase in units of less than 1 beat per minute. At the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to select a speed greater than the original file. Why would you want to do this? There’s no greater reassurance in live performance than the knowledge that you are well within your comfort zone – and the only way to have a zone sufficiently large for comfort to become frequent is to extend the top end.

Like many applications, I use Transcribe! for a purpose other than its central one i.e. to practise rather than to transcribe. One of the problems while practising is the disinclination to stop and repeat a passage when you are caught up in the momentum of the music. In such a case, I like to highlight the section and use the loop function – thereby ruling out continuing. Better still, to avoid the temptation simply to turn off the loop function and speed ahead, I like to use the Export option where a highlighted passage can be extracted at any speed with any number of repetitions.

There are various audio options to make life easier. For example, if the instrument you are trying to hear is to the right of the stereo spectrum, you can can alter the balance so that this side is boosted at the expense of the left. There are also EQ and tuning controls (perhaps the piano you are using will not be exactly at concert pitch)

Although the factor which grabs the attention is the ability to slow down the music without altering the pitch (the default outcome of those of us who grew up with tapes) a transposition (pitch shift/key change) function is also included. This enables:

  • teachers to move audio material into easier keys for pupils
  • pupils to use play-along material intended for instruments in other keys
  • singers to move an accompaniment into a more comfortable key
  • singers to extend their range gradually rather than risk injury

For guitarists hoping to “work out” complex guitar solos a program like this is worth its weight in gold. I can’t imagine anyone coming to the end of the free 30-day trial and deciding that it was not worth the money.

The things you forget

When I was a child, in an era when we used to have real winters (this is threatening to turn into a Hovis advert), I was always amazed at how painful freezing cold ears could seem (a sensitive boy, obviously). Summer brought with it a heat which constantly surprised me. Why could I not retain the memory of one season while experiencing another? Relentless drizzle and snowless Christmases might have fooled me into thinking that I had overcome this memory deficiency, had it not been for regular oscillation between term time and holiday. In the heat of battle, I simply cannot summon the feeling of open-ended, meandering days. At the end of a long summer break, retuning the engines for the return to a high-octane existence, feels like it will require quite an adjustment. Yet it never does and the reason for this really only became clear to me on today, reflecting on a nicely turned phrase by our new colleague Sergei Desmond, who has been contracted to teach singing as part of East Lothian’s development of the Youth Music Initiative. He described our relationship with young people as follows: “you give them your experience and they give you their energy.”

Perhaps those in teaching, who actually enjoy teaching, are aware of this – even if, like myself until today, only intuitively.