What Are Rhythmic Instruments? (Roles, Functions & Types)

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  • What is a rhythmic instrument and what is its function?
  • Understand all of the elements that make rhythm
  • Learn about the 5 types of rhythm

Rhythm in music is the key element that controls the flow and feel of a track.  There are specific instruments made specifically for the rhythm section.

However, a common misconception is that rhythm contains purely drums or percussion. This is, in fact, not the case.

Rhythm cannot be defined by one group of instruments like percussion, bass, guitar, or synths, for example, as they can all play a role in the rhythm section of a piece of music.  

In this article, we are going to explain what rhythm is, the different types of rhythm, specific rhythmic instruments, and their application within the music.

What are Rhythmic Instruments?

Most instruments can be used as an accompaniment to the rhythm section; however, a rhythmic instrument’s sole use is to be used in the rhythm section.

A rhythmic instrument has a limited range of tones and is thus used instead to help maintain the feel and tempo of the music.

These sounds are usually triggered by a strike with drumsticks or by the movement of the instrument. The majority of percussive instruments are classed as rhythmic, excluding those with more melodic range such as vibraphones and marimbas.

Types of Rhythmic Instruments

Slit Drum

Rhythmic instruments have been used since the start of humanity, with some musical instruments dating back as far as 67,000 years ago. An early example of a rhythmic instrument is the slit drum. 

The slit drum is one of the earliest instruments discovered by archeologists. The instrument is made by carving one or more “slits” into the wood that will each, in turn, produce a note.

Despite its name, the slit drum isn’t actually a drum as it doesn’t use a drum skin membrane. It is in fact an idiophone, as the sound is produced from the vibration of the instrument itself.

These instruments are rooted in history as they have been used for rituals and ceremonies for thousands of years. 

Traditional Drum

As humanity progressed, it was natural that we would want to develop our instruments to allow for more diverse music.

The drums that we are more familiar with today originated around 5500 BC in China. These drums were made by stretching alligator skin and using it as a drum membrane.

This allowed players to achieve a wider frequency range when playing the instrument.

Cymbals

The true origin of the cymbal is still unclear, but they are estimated to have originated from either China or Turkey around 1000BC.

The role of the cymbal was to accompany a drum rhythm usually by finishing or starting a measure of music. In a more modern setting, cymbals such as hi-hats are used to maintain and guide the tempo of a given track.

Shakers

Shakers and rattles are rhythmic instruments that were and are still used by primitive tribes today. They held strong importance within ceremonies within tribes.

They’re also used to add additional layers to a rhythm section. Due to the way you play the instrument, you’ll hear this most consistently with a drum rhythm on 8th or 16th notes

In order to better understand the usage of these types of instruments, we must understand the basics of rhythm. 

What is Rhythm? 

At its core, rhythm is a reoccurring pattern that helps maintain the tempo, meter, and accent of music. It can be broken down into these core elements: 

Time Signature

A time signature is one of the most important elements in rhythm. It is displayed as a fraction in music e.g. 3/4 time. The top number (which is 3) is used to tell musicians how many beats there are in each measure.

The bottom number tells you the note values of the beats. In the example, 4 means they are quarter notes, and that therefore, the quarter note gets one beat.

Meter

Meter represents the bars and beats of the music. Meter is essentially the number of beats from one strong beat to the next.

For example, if you have a rhythm that goes strong-weak-strong weak, it is a duple meter. If you have a rhythm that goes strong-weak-weak it is a triple meter, and so on. 

Tempo

The word tempo comes from the Italian word for time. Tempo is the pace at which the musicians need to play the music.

This is displayed as BPM, meaning beats per minute. 

Accents

Accenting refers to the strength with which you play a note. For example, a drummer will accent specific notes that they want the listener to focus on, such as the snare on beats 2 and 4.

In between these emphasized notes are ghost notes, which are used to help maintain the rhythm without drawing too much focus. 

Syncopation

This is the accentuation of beats that would usually be weak notes. For example in a regular 4/4 time signature, the strong beats will be on beats 1 and 3 of each measure.

For the rhythm to become syncopated, the melody of the song may accent the playing on beats 2 and 4 to counter the regular rhythm, becoming off-beat. This is most commonly used and recognized within reggae music. 

Polyrhythms

A polyrhythm is a combination of different rhythms played simultaneously by the rhythm section. This could be a combination of triplets and duplet patterns.

In more complex instances it can be a combination of different time signatures; this is useful for making interesting and complex rhythmic structures. 

What Are The 5 Types of Rhythm in Music?

Regular Rhythm

A regular rhythm has a repeated rhythmic structure, played with an evenly spaced arrangement.

For example, think of a drum kit playing a kick on every beat and snare on every second beat of the bar. This is the type of rhythm often used in house music. Below is an example of a regular drum rhythm:

Alternating Rhythm

An alternating rhythm is the same as a regular rhythm, but with more complexity. Instead of the same recurring pattern, the rhythm will alternate between patterns 1+2.

Using the example below, the drums alternate from using 8th notes on the hi-hats to quatre notes on the ride cymbal. The music then alternates between these 2 patterns:

Flowing Rhythm

A flowing rhythm also has reoccurring elements; however, it includes more modulation than regular rhythms.

As a drummer, you can achieve this by alternating the timbre and velocity (force) of the different drums you hit.

Progressive Rhythm

Progressive rhythm can be achieved by changing one element of a repeated section. You may play a repeated pattern initially, but on every second beat, you’ll play something different.

As a drummer, you can alternate between your snare or tom, for example.

Random Rhythm

This is a rhythm that is played with no order or planned sequence. The random rhythm cannot be predicted. This type of rhythm is often used in bebop and improvisational jazz.

This type of rhythm was often used by Buddy Rich in the 1960s, who is considered one of the most influential drummers of all time. 

FAQs: 

What is classified as a rhythmic instrument?

One that requires an impact to excite the sound. 

Is a piano a rhythmic instrument? 

No. A piano is not a rhythmic instrument even though it is considered percussion.  However, it can be a part of the rhythm section.