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Harmonic Time

Jazzed Magazine • Focus SessionNovember 2012 • November 20, 2012

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By Jerry Leake

Since its birth in the early 1900s, “jazz” has expanded to include a broad range of categories, interpretations, and styles from ragtime, blues, New Orleans, big band swing, bebop, West Coast, cool, avant-garde, Afro-Cuban, modal, free, Latin, jazz fusion and jazz rock, smooth jazz, and so on. Over the last few decades, jazz pioneers began to explore World Music influences from India and Africa to expand their palette of sounds and possibilities. Of course, the African influence on the development of jazz has been both well documented and hotly debated for many years.

What is lesser known is the influence of Indian melodic and rhythm systems on the growth of jazz, often called “Indo Jazz.” John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and John McLaughlin were early pioneers who incorporated Indian concepts into their compositions and improvisations. McLaughlin’s ‘70s groundbreaking band Shakti perhaps best epitomizes the fusion of modal jazz, North Indian, and South Indian traditions.  Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa prominently incorporates South Indian (Carnatic) melodic and rhythmic elements in his music.

Learning any new style of music requires years of dedication and hard work. This article will reveal how world rhythm systems can be learned without having to play a traditional drum. The language-based rhythm method I developed to teach non-drummers is called “Harmonic Time.”

Harmonic Time

Harmonic Time (HT) incorporates three levels of activity to internalize and orchestrate musical time, groove and mathematics into the entire body and not just the intellect, profoundly “feeling” how patterns combine and interact and not just “hearing” them. HT places all musicians on the same playing field for learning from the ground up, using stepping, clapping, and vocal patterns (drum vocals/songs). Students also incorporate ankle bells and rhythm stick to enhance musicality. HT borrows from the African tradition of dancing, drumming and singing to “own” the concept or exercise.

South Indian mridangam master Trichy Sankaran states: “Music is about weaving designs within the fabric of time.” Using HT, the fabric of time is the step/pulse with designs woven with vocal and counter-sticking patterns. HT requires a high level of discipline, especially for musicians who play single-lined instruments or have little or no experience with moving (or dancing) to music. Ask a room of musicians how many people dance and few hands go up. HT only requires one to move in a side-to-side manner, to feel a sense of empowerment and ownership of the beat: the ultimate fabric of time.

Discipline = Freedom

The discipline a student acquires allows them greater freedom to explore the perpetual boundaries of any style. With polished and organized tools in our proverbial “toolbox” the easier it is to grab and apply that tool in the moment of improvisation. As challenging as HT is, it is also fun and engaging. Even when patterns do not align, it becomes a sort of game for you to fix the phrase as it is happening. Playing music is difficult and we are glad that it is, but it should also be fun!

HT Exercises: Binary Cells

We will begin by developing three layers of time: slow 2 (quarter note) stepping, medium 4 (8th) sticking, and fast 8 (16ths) using the voice.

• Stepping in 2 (2/4 meter)

Start with the feet together and step in place with the RIGHT foot for beat one, then RIGHT step outward for beat 2 (transferring weight). Do not step far apart to avoid losing balance and causing the beat/pulse to waiver. The LEFT foot would now step inward, next to the right foot, then the LEFT foot steps outward to complete the entire sequence before starting over on the right foot. The INNER step is always beat 1, the outer step is beat 2. The RIGHT foot represents one bar of 2/4 and the LEFT the 2nd bar, creating balance between the two halves of your body.



I’ll say this right off the bat: “We hate numbers!” Any form of counting in music is not good. It may help unlock a phrase but it must be avoided as much as possible. Our goal is to speak abstract Indian syllables—TA KA—to create a more musical contour:


Sing scales and melodies, bridging the gap between numbers, syllables, and song. When rendered in a circle, everyone would be stepping in unison like a large gear moving to the right, then left.

• 3+3+2 and 9 levels of language

We can now apply syncopation using 332 groupings. The step (beat) and this stick (332) will remain constant while introducing different languages that will alter how you perceive the phrase (cognition).

These levels explore drum languages, academic POV, and singing a blues bass line to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. The “x” (clap) coincides with the spoken number, the dash “-“ marks a rest. Always accent the “1” with your voice (bold print). The downbeat of each 2/4 bar is also marked with an underline (“1”).

332 Languages (stage 1)

Level 1: “numbers”


Stage 2 : stick variations

So far you have been clapping/sticking on all of the “1s” of the 332 (1 – – 1 – – 1 -). Now stick on all of the “1 2” of the 3 cells. Speak the numbers “1 2 – 1 2 – 1 –” then TA KA and TA. Also sing the blues:

Next, double the mass of the 332 to 333322. The 4/4 phrase can be rotated to 5 other positions by moving the first number to the end:  333223 / 332233 / 322333 / 223333 / 233332. Shown below is 333322 using ta ki ta syllables. The beginning of each struck cell (ta) is in bold. Explore all 9 languages, stick variations (discussed next), and rotations in the long form.


Stage 3: counter-sticking patterns

Stage 1 and Stage 2 involved simultaneously speaking and sticking the same pattern to strengthen awareness. Stage 3 introduces counter stick patterns. Let us revisit 332 and speak just three languages: 1) ta ki ta, 2) pa ti, 3) dum tek. The stick (“X”) will introduce a 3rd element, creating three unique layers. Each stick pattern has a cultural connection that will be briefly mentioned. Repeat phrases and improvise freely. Take chances and have fun.


We have explored one binary “seed” that was meticulously nurtured and grown into a giant sequoia of possibilities. An extensive HT study exists in the ternary world of 6/8 and 12/8, with polyrhythms and cross-rhythms dissected, rotated and sung using African and Indian syllables. Additional studies explore odd meters in 5, 7 and beyond. By taking small steps every day, focusing on the “process” and not the “product”, by stepping away from your primary instrument and learning from a different cultural and physical awareness, you will earn great rewards from “doing the work.” By always retaining an “all ways and always” perspective you will never tire from even the most basic seed of possibilities.

Yes, playing music is difficult… Thank goodness it is also fun!

Jerry Leake is on the faculties of Berklee College of Music, and at New England Conservatory, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its groundbreaking Contemporary Improvisation department in 2012-2013 with a year-long series of concerts and events in Boston and New York City. Leake has authored eight books on world percussion, leads the band “Cubist,” and co-leads “Natraj.”

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