Playing In Half-Time


Copyright 2003 Hal Galper. From “Forward Motion, From Bach To Bebop, A Corrective Approach To Jazz Phrasing”

“The faster you play, the slower you count.” – Dizzy Gillespie

Forward Motion has global effects upon the mind, body and emotions of the jazz improviser. One of FM’s effects is that playing in Forward Motion requires you to think faster than usual. I use the word “think” with caution, to describe a particular kind of “thinking.” Mitch Haupers, in his article “The Musician Mind,” (Berklee Today, Summer 1994) quoting from Howard Gardner‘s “Creating Minds “(Basic Books 1993), makes a clear distinction between two kinds of thinking; intelligence and creativity. “…intelligence and creativity are not the same. Intelligence is measured in terms of convergent thinking – the ability to give the ‘correct’ answer on an IQ test – while creativity stimulates divergent thinking – the tendency to respond to problems by searching for a wide range of possible interpretations.” It is divergent thinking to which I’m referring.

Many of the childhood musical concepts we were taught were apropos for the time. Learning how to count in quarter-note time and where thenotes were on the instrument were our first musical challenges. Learning where “one” of the bar was, and your basic scales usually accomplished these goals. In the process, we acquired a tacit conditioning of howmusic worked that is not apropos for adult musicians. Unawares, we accepted this conditioning as a truth; that “one” of the bar was the first beat of the bar and the root of a scale was it’s first note. We were all taught backward.

Quarter-note time is what can be termed a “swing” beat. It has a dynamic, propulsive quality that makes it difficult to play by choice and with control. The operative attitude is that one must be exciting not excited. Quarter-note time induces tension and creates over-excitement and compulsive 8th note playing, literally reducing instrumental facility by 50%. 8th notes played with a under-laying quarter-note feeling have a forced, over-articulated quality. These difficulties occur for one reason only: quarter-note tempos occur at a rate of speed too fast to conceive and execute 8th note ideas. Reconditioning your attitude and conception of playing quarter-note time can eliminate this effect.

Use of quarter-note time is a hold over from childhood musical experience. All young music students must develop an internal “clock” and learn how to count tempos in steady quarter-notes. This concept is then mistakenly carried over into adult musical behavior. Although most childhood behavior becomes modified when reaching adulthood, somehow we think this is not true of many of our early musical concepts. Most of us feel our internal tempo “clock” in one of four ways: as steady quarter-notes, on 2 & 4 of the bar, on 1 & 3 of the bar or in a steady stream of syncopated rhythms. Defined as “Swing Beats”, quarter-note time and 2 & 4 of the bar are emotionally charged beats. You snap your fingers on 2 & 4 because those beats swing. They are often used by player‘s as a “crutch” for keeping place and imparting a false feeling of swing to their ideas. Those who count using these beats have yet to reach rhythmic maturity. Learning to play in half time is adult rhythmic behavior.

The half-time approach to playing time can be applied to most tempos, except ballads. By altering your subjective perception of playing quarter-note time to playing in half time, you’ll feel the tempo as being half as fast. You’ll therefore be twice as relaxed, have twice as much time to conceive ideas and double your technical facility. In effect, you will be conceiving every tune as a ballad. It’s impossible to become overexcited playing a balled tempo.

Playing in half time synchronizes neatly with FM, allowing the player more time to think and the option of choice. Half time also synchronizes the target beats and target tones with the “on” beats of “one” & “three” of the bar. You can experience the feeling of playing in half-time by trying the following experiment; tap your foot on beats 1 & 3 of a 4/4 tempo, counting every two beats as one beat of a tempo at half the speed of the 4/4 tempo and counting over two-bar phrases. You are then tapping out quarter-notes of a ballad (half time) tempo.

Play the following example of an 8 note, C Major “Bebop” scale, in the following manner: Begin by tapping your foot on every quarter-note at a medium-up, 4/4 tempo. Repeat the scale ascending and descending without stopping at the top or bottom of the scale.

Example 5







After four or more bars, without stopping, change your foot tapping from each quarter-note to 1 & 3 of the bar, and continue play the scale. You’ll be tapping your foot on every two beats of the two bar phrase.

Example 6






Switch back and forth a few times. Notice the over-articulated quality of the scale while tapping quarter notes and how, when tapping on 1 & 3, it changes to a legato phrasing that is easier to execute. What has occurred is, by tapping on 1 & 3 you are now playing 8th notes that were originally in 4/4 as 16th notes in 2/2 and are, in effect, playing a ballad tempo.

Example 7






Notice that the tempo marking of 90 in Example 7 is half as fast as the tempo marking 180 in Example 6. The result is that in Example 7 the melody sounds to the listener as 8th notes, but the player is conceiving them at a different rate of speed as 16th notes.

You may have experienced the feeling of playing in half time without realizing it. Have you noticed how easy it is to improvise 8th note ideas while playing a samba or bossa nova? Brazilian music is written and played in 2/2 and is based on the clave beat which is a two bar phrase. Have you noticed how easy it is to improvise double-time, 16th note ideas on a ballad? That’s the half-time feeling at work.

Playing in half time has a particular feeling and quality of sound that many of the masters have achieved. This effect can be most clearly recognized when listening to their recordings of up-tempo tunes. The half time technique is most clearly demonstrated by a stride pianist’s left hand. It is the only way to successfully execute the stride. As when learning anything new, it will take time and practice to get used to this new and unfamiliar perception of time. You‘ll have to retrain years of conditioning of playing in quarter-note time. It will be especially difficult to resist slipping back into quarter-note time while playing with a drums and bass who must play with a quarter-note feeling. From time to time, you may switch back to quarter-note time playing for the sake of rhythmic variety and add extra propulsiveness to a line.

There are two potential hazards of playing in half time. First, don’t vswitch the time values of the chord changes from 4/4 to half time, making the tune a virtual ballad. Secondly, avoid the tendency to play too far behind the beat. Review and relearn your repertoire and play all your songs with a ballad concept; i.e., a 12 bar blues becomes a six bar ballad, a 32 bartune becomes a 16 bar ballad, etc. You can also alter your perception of time by selecting a ballad you know well enough you that don’t have to think about it while playing. After few bars begin to improvise doubletime 16th note melodies. At the end of 16 bars, switch to a blues in another key at twice the tempo. Try to retain the legato, over-the-barline feeling of the 16th notes in the faster quarter-note tempo. If you lose the feeling, return to the ballad and start again until you can make the switch without reverting back to quarter-note time.

From this point on your goal will be to eliminate feeling tempo in quarter-note time and 8th note playing from your conception of music. Listen to music while counting in half time. All practicing of 8th notes lines should be mentally translated into 16th note lines in half time. Most of us have been conditioned into believing that jazz improvising should be hard work and feel that if it becomes easy we are somehow “cheating”. Improvising should be fun. It can’t be fun if it’s not easy to do. Being used to working hard, it will be difficult getting used to playing being easy. When first learning how to play in half time, students often complain that they “don’t feel like they’re doing anything.” That’s the way it’s supposed to feel.