When considering rhythmic phrasing taking into account the great musical traditions of East and West what comes to mind? 

Well for me it’s relatively straight forward first define the building blocks, in other words the subdivisions of the quarter note pulse, and all the potential note groupings found within each subdivision and their potential applications to create rhythmic phrasing. 

If I were to look at two traditions that encapsulates those possibilities more directly as a western kit drummer, then first I look to my own tradition of contemporary jazz and fusion music’s, and second, the Carnatic South Indian classical tradition. Two very different approaches, the Western based on a linear timeline moving from A to B and qualified by much layered syncopation, approached and studied through a written medium. The Carnatic based on ever expanding cycles and compositions within those cycles seeking to resolve on the “sum” or 1. Very mathematically oriented in its conception and approached and passed down through an oral tradition. 

For me these two great rivers meet to give us a wealth of inspiring materials and two very unique approaches to rhythmic phrasing. If one is not concerned so much with the aesthetics, the emotive, cultural aspect of the music itself, but more the conceptual approach to rhythm found within these traditions then where do they meet? what is the vehicle, one must engage to unravel their secrets? 

That is simple and found in all music traditions; it’s simply language, the spoken vocabulary of rhythm, the count, which is universally developed with the human voice. The voice which gives us the primary means before any instrument comes into one’s hand. Our voice is the bridge to internalising and merging with the language of music, developing an internal unspoken clock along the way, such that this language can merge deeply and profoundly with our emotion, and be expressed again magically as if a mysterious source sings, and plays through us. 

So; systems of singing and counting rhythm, well in this regards the West is quite poor, it has not developed an extensive, unified system of counting, that is holistic taking into account all subdivisions. Rather, its disjointed, no one format has been agreed on, much is left to the practitioner to work out for him or herself. Its focus is to learn through written transcriptions of musical works. A method or complete system exploring the fundamental structures or building blocks of rhythm, correlating to a spoken language or system of counting does not truly exist in a Western context. 

The Carnatic system however is the exact opposite, within this musical tradition exist a system to learn a huge repertoire of rhythmic compositions, where the building blocks are in evidence, and they are learned through a spoken language, that works in direct correlations with South India’s three main drumming instruments the mridagam (a two headed drum), the ghatam (a clay pot) and the kanjira (a small frame drum). 

This language is called Konnokol and it is ancient. In my opinion the South’s Konnokol is the most unified, radical, all inclusive system of approaching rhythmic phrasing, that exist on the planet today. 

Has it gone all the way to define and catalogue all the building blocks or source codes found in most subdivisions? No, it is the language of a musical traditions after all, it’s not a tradition’s job to define all possibilities. Has it gone further than any other system?   

I believe yes. Five years ago when I googled Konnokol, there was one or two references to John McLaughlin and a few others, now it’s a different matter, Youtube is full of videos on Konnokol many by western musicians. 

Celebrated composer percussionist Pete Lockett has played a big part in exposing Konnokol and Indian compositions to a growing and appreciative Western audience. This cross cultural conversation is going on at the highest level of academia and many Western drummers are integrating Indian concept into their playing. For example Steve Smith who has collaborated with Kanjira players Ganesh Kumar and Selva Ganesh. While yet the greatest exponent of this cross cultural phenomena must be attributed to John McLaughlin’s band Shakti which since the mid 70’s including legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain, Ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram and violinist L Shankar paved the way and exposed the West to India's rich rhythmic traditions.

India too is being influenced by the West, with many Indian percussionist incorporating Western drums into their set ups and percussion ensembles, Trilok Gurtu being one of the most celebrated worldwide and who also gained recognition in this West through his collaborations with John McLaughlin. From each of these two great rhythmic traditions I drew a fundamental expression of how to use the building blocks that are found within all possible subdivisions, at least up to nonuplets or 36th notes (meaning a quarter note that is divided into 9 notes or pulses giving us 36 notes in a bar of 4/4). 

Inspired and guided by my Western heritage I investigated the subdivisions by cataloguing and defining all the possible note groupings found within each subdivision up to nonuplets. This research's outcome orients itself to syncopated phrasing and is easily and ideally adapted to four way coordination groove playing when the groupings are layered together via different voices of the drum set. In order to define all the note groupings in those subdivisions I also developed a Western based Konnokol system of counting. It makes use of numbers on the beats or quarter notes and primarily vowel sounds for all the other pulses. 

I choose to use the American system of naming the subdivision with a number like “8th” notes as opposed to the British system of names, such as quavers, semiquavers and so on. 

Here is my Western system of Konnokol for 8th notes up to 36th notes: 

2 = 1 A                             8th notes(Duplets) 

3 = 1 A U                         12th notes(Triplets) 

4 = 1 E A U                      16th notes(Quadruplets)       

5 = 1 O A E U                   20th notes(Quintuplets) 

6 = 1 I O A E U                 24th notes(Sextuplets) 

7 = 1 I O A E U C              28th notes(Septuplets) 

8 = 1 I O E A U Y C           32nd notes(Octuplets) 

9 = 1 I O E A U Y C T        36th notes(Nonuplets)   

From the Carnatic system I used their traditional Konnokol to start learning to phrase groupings of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 notes over subdivisions from 8th to 36th notes. For example playing four groups of '7' over 16th notes would add up to a total of 28 notes and result in one bar of 7/4 time. As 16th notes instead of being traditionally phrased in 7 groups of 4, we could instead phrase these twenty eight 16th notes in 4 groups of 7. The difference this makes is that only the first group of 7 will start on a quarter pulse, the next three groups of 7 will start 'within and play across all subsequent quarter note pulses within that measure; whereas, if we group the 16th notes in 7 groups of 4's, each group will start on a quarter note pulse. Therefore, utilising groupings other than those fundamental to any subdivision will tend to make those groupings no longer start on a quarter note pulse and cross over the quarter note pulses, thereby resulting is a sense of time modulation within the groove. As an aesthetic or feeling outcome, this technique or device of using 'alternate groupings' in the context of any specific groove utilising a specific subdivision, will give the feeling of being 'out of phase' with that groove, or 'outside' the traditional feeling of that particular groove. 

Continuing with this example, if in a musical context we utilise a 16th note subdivision to define the groove, grouping 16th in groups of 7 will give the impression that we may be utilising the 28th note subdivision instead, or are functioning in or have changed to a different time signature, which can be referred to as time modulation. Indeed, using this technique one can even give the illusion that the tempo has sped up or slowed down, or that we have moved into another subdivision’s associated groove. Carnatic music is full of these techniques creating what I call “alternative phrasing” by using groupings in any given subdivision that are not fundamental to that subdivision. 


We can take this further, using the example above, 28 sixteenth notes could be grouped as follows : 

5, 6, 7, 5, 5  = 28 . For the drum set even though one can use these methods in groove playing, to create a sense of modulation within time signatures, they lend themselves brilliantly for fills and phrasing around the drums due to their rudimental applications and make for great soloing phrases and melodies when used with harmonic playing. 

In the South they refer to “calculations” when an ensemble will phrase a particular section in unison, like, ” 5, 6, 7, 5, 5 “. The South Carnatic tradition also has a more groove based sound then the Kayal Classical tradition of the North; making its complex rhythmic tradition there I say, more approachable to a Western listener. 

These Carnatic methods of phrasing played over an 8 bar section for instance, will most likely have groups that cross over the bar line and therefore give a different flow to the music as a whole. In Carnatic music which did not concern itself with bars, this was never an issue, the resolution point on “sum” or 1 could come after playing many cycles. Therefore its structures might seem more chaotic if analyzed, with sections being of varied uneven lengths, where even decimal point might be needed to define them, unlike our very neat Western sections of 2, 4, 6 and 8 bars which tends to define our phrasing. I have sometimes referred to this as the “tyranny” of our notation system, which creates neat little boxes to write into. In Carnatic music a cycle could be based, on 27 let’s say, with a downbeat every 4 notes (16th’s), resulting in a 6/4 and 3/16th time signature, or if the quarter note downbeat sounded every 5 notes (20th’s), this would result in a 5/4 and 2/20th time signature, but I digress…….. 

Here is the Carnatic Konnokol from groups of 2 to 9, that can then be applied to or as a subdivision: 

2 =Ta Ka = 12 

3 =Ta Ka Ta = 123 

4 =Ta Ke Te Mi = 1234 

5 =Ta Ti Ke Ta Tom = 12345 

6 =Ta Ka Ta Ka Te Mi = 123456 

7 =Ta Ka Ta Ta Ke Te Mi = 1234567 

8 =Ta Ka Te Mi Ta Ka Ju Na = 12345678 

9 =Ta Ka Te Mi Ta Ta Ka Te Mi =123456789 

(Note, you will need to learn to sing them, which doesn’t take long, in order to run the exercises below.) 

Of course there are spoken variations like 

7= Ta Ka Ta Ka Ta Ka Ta 

and the syncopated versions where notes are left out of the groupings such as 

7= Ta . Te . Ta . Tom 

Still with all the variations on a group of 7 in the Carnatic repertoire and all the exiting ways it applies those variations, maybe fifteen variations at best, it has not as a tradition cataloged all the possible groupings found within a group of 7 or 28th notes, as I mentioned earlier. Even with the extremely analytical, mathematical and inward tendency of the Indian mind, it was never the role of one of its great musical traditions to catalogue every possible grouping in all subdivisions. 

However I saw it as a worthwhile enterprise, since I can tell you that there are 127 note groupings within a group of 7 or 28th notes; having myself cataloged them and given each one its appropriate Western Konnokol. It’s also obvious to say that even the greatest musical genius would be hard pressed to remember all 127 groupings and be able to sing them all, not to mention all groupings in other subdivisions. But with our modern technology these groupings could be imputed into a sequencer for composition and developmental ideas. Something which I have also done using Ableton Live. 


I have done this for subdivisions from 12th to 36th notes. However today we will just concentrate on 16th notes. I will give you one example from each of these two branches of rhythmic culture; filtered through my obsession of going to the source, in order to discover the foundation building blocks that make up all the possible rhythmic structures within all traditions. Running these exercises will develop your facility, technique, musicality and give you a broad rhythmic vocabulary, which can then be applied to any musical style, genre or tradition. 

Here are all the potential note groupings found within 16th notes, fifteen in all: 

Western Konnokol for 16th notes = 1EAU 

Four one note groupings:    1 / E / A / U 

Six two note groupings:       1E / 1A / 1U / EA / EU / AU 

Four three note groupings:  1EA / 1EU / 1AU / EAU 

One four note grouping:      1EAU 

So the first and obvious thing to do is to learn to sing or count them in 4/4 time. The basic exercise would be to just count one whole bar of 16th notes in a cycle of 15 bars: 

1EAU 2EAU 3EAU 4EAU x 15 while clapping one bar of each grouping. 

While counting out loud: 1EAU 2EAU 3EAU 4EAU clap one bar of all the numbers or quarter notes , then one bar of all the “E‘s” then one bar of all the “A‘s” then one bar of all the “U‘s” right through to 1EAU…. 

Singing all the 16th notes while clapping all the groupings, will ensure that your timing is absolutely correct, any inaccuracies will be reflected immediately against your voice, provided you are counting/singing correctly in time. The use of a metronome is always recommended. 

When one is really familiar with all the groupings, proceed thus: foot tapping the quarter notes, one should repeat the exercise, this time clapping and counting in unison one bar of each individual grouping only. 

All the numbers or quarter notes, then all the “E‘s” then all the “A‘s” then the “U‘s” right through to the 1EAU….. 

Just this much will test the proficiency of your rhythmic phrasing and how “on” your rhythmic phrasing actually is and how familiar you are with 16th notes. To be really “on” when running the groups of single notes for instance, is a great asset to one’s overall musicality, in terms of really feeling the rhythm with dead on accuracy and intuitively recognising how these notes feel in relation to the pulse or quarter note. 

The combination of all these groupings defines all potential rhythmic syncopation possibilities within the 16th note subdivision, and therefore covers a wide variety of genres that are predominantly 16th note based like funk or R&B for example. If our music notation system was not based on note length, but instead note placement in time, using dedicated notation symbols; one can see how easily these groupings could account for all rhythmic phrasing using the 16th note subdivision, such that the need for rests would be eradicated 99% of the time. 

I have developed many ways of running these groupings for the drum set as four way groove coordination, fills, soloing etc. 

Here is another exercise, just using the single note groupings in 4/4 time. 

Using just four notes, it covers all possible permutations in just 24 bars of music and can be run so many different ways to really develop sharp accurate syncopated phrases and grooves, especially for drummers. I am using written Konnokol here instead of standard notation, each note always plays within, or on the next subsequent quarter note pulse: 

| 1 – E – A – U | 1 – E – U – A | 1 – A – E – U | 

| 1 – A – U – E | 1 – U – E – A | 1 – U – A – E | 

| E – 2 – A – U | E – 2 – U – A | E – A – 3 – U | 

| E – A – U – 4 | E – U – 3 – A | E – U – A – 4 | 

| A – 2 – E – U | A – 2 – U – E | A – E – 3 – U | 

| A – E – U – 4 | A – U – 3 – E | A – U – E – 4 | 

| U – 2 – E – A | U – 2 – A – E | U – E – 3 – A | 

| U – E – A – 4 | U – A – 3 – E | U – A – E – 4 | 

After a short time, you will see the logic in the ordered combinations and the many different ways this can be used, always reaffirming your rhythmic musicality. Why learn rote grooves or beats, when instead you can go to the source, and arrange all the building blocks to run combinations and discover so many exiting possibilities and  musical rhythmic phrases ! 

Of course there is always a place for learning a great riff or groove created by a legendary musician, or study a piece of music in depth. But what better way to gain facility, technique and musicality then by going to the rhythmic source from which all music emanates? 

As a musician one will inevitably be drawn to certain genres, but this kind of work can only enhance your capacity to enter into that genre with more depth and confidence, having already explored a huge terrain of the building blocks with which that genre’s music is most likely to have been written and developed. 

Now for a little more exploration, this time using the Carnatic Konnokol to phrase differently, we will continue working with 16th notes. 

How to group and sing 16ths notes with groups other then four. 

Singing groups of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 over or as 16th notes. 

One bar of 16ths notes as Konnakol in 4/4 is: 

TaKeTeMi  TaKeTeMi  TaKeTeMi  TaKeTeMi 

Below I have created a visual representation of the exercise using numbers for each group, to facilitate your understanding. Each number correspond to one syllable sung. For example in a group of three 

“Ta Ka Ta” 

Ta =1   Ka =2   Ta =3  and so on for all the groups below: 

2 =Ta Ka = 12 

3 =Ta Ka Ta = 123 

4 =Ta Ke Te Mi = 1234 

5 =Ta Ti Ke Ta Tom = 12345 

6 =Ta Ka Ta Ka Te Mi = 123456 

7 =Ta Ka Ta Ta Ke Te Mi = 1234567 

8 =Ta Ka Te Mi Ta Ka Ju Na = 12345678 

9 =Ta Ka Te Mi Ta Ta Ka Te Mi =123456789 

Using the numbers to replace the konnokol syllables for each group since we are not using notation, we’ll be able to see exactly how the numbers align and can therefore be sung. 

The line on top is the 16th notes, the line underneath shows how the other groups of    2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 align when sung over or as 16th. In the exercise each group in red is sung four times which gives us this: 

With groups of 2 they are sung over one bar of 2/4 

With groups of 3 they are sung over one bar of 3/4 

With groups of 4 they are sung over one bar of 4/4 

With groups of 5 they are sung over one bar of 5/4 

With groups of 6 they are sung over one bar of 6/4 

With groups of 7 they are sung over one bar of 7/4 

With groups of 8 they are sung over one bar of 8/4 

With groups of 9 they are sung over one bar of 9/4 

4 = |1234 1234| 

2 = |1212 1212|=2/4 

4 = |1234 1234 1234| 

3 = |1231 2312 3123|=3/4 

4 = |1234 1234 1234 1234 1234| 

5 = |1234 5123 4512 3451 2345|=5/4 

4 = |1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234|    

6 = |1234 5612 3456 1234 5612 3456|=6/4 

4 = |1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234| 

7 = |1234 5671 2345 6712 3456 7123 4567|=7/4 

4 = |1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234| 

8 = |1234 5678 1234 5678 1234 5678 1234 5678|=8/4 

4 = |1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234 1234| 

9 = |1234 5678 9123 4567 8912 3456 7891 2345 6789|=9/4 

If we were using notation we would see how some of the groupings of 2,3,5,6,7 and 9 cross quarter notes within a bar, and if we kept the whole exercise in 4/4 how some of those groups would also cross over the bar line. 

Running the exercise: 

Firstly, clap your hands in 4/4 at a comfortable tempo to sing 16th notes. The use of a metronome is always recommended.

To reinforce the 16th feel in order to achieve accuracy we will sing one bar of sixteenth notes before singing the alternate group phrasing till we reach the groupings of 9. 

Proceed thus: 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 2 = TaKa TaKa TaKa TaKa 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 3 = TaKaTa TaKaTa TaKaTa TaKaTa 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 5 = TaTiKeTaTom   TaTiKeTaTom TaTiKeTaTom  TaTiKeTaTom 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 6 = TaKaTaKaTeMi  TaKaTaKaTeMi TaKaTaKaTeMi  TaKaTaKaTeMi 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 7 = TaKaTaTaKeTeMi  TaKaTaTaKeTeMi TaKaTaTaKeTeMi  TaKaTaTaKeTeMi 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 8 = TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa  TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 9 = TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi  TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

It's crucial to keep a strong and accurate quarter note pulse with the hand claps, because the tension release using the “alternate groupings phrases” can only be felt or experienced over and against the quarter note pulse. Though in this exercise each alternate grouping of 3,5,7,9 and to some degree 6 starts on a quarter note pulse, during their cycle of four repetitions, all subsequent note groupings after the first, will never start on a quarter note, but always within the quarter note pulse, and this is what creates the tension seeking resolution. The alternate groups of 2 and 8 do not create this tension because they are divisions or multiples of “4” which is the grouping inherent in 16th notes. 

When you are comfortable running the exercise above. Try running it thus:  Sing just one bar of 16th notes, before singing each alternate grouping four times like so: 

Sing one bar of 16th = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 2 = TaKa TaKa TaKa TaKa 

Sing four groups of 3 = TaKaTa TaKaTa TaKaTa TaKaTa 

Sing four groups of 4 = TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 5 = TaTiKeTaTom   TaTiKeTaTom TaTiKeTaTom TaTiKeTaTom 

Sing four groups of 6 = TaKaTaKaTeMi TaKaTaKaTeMi TaKaTaKaTeMi TaKaTaKaTeMi 

Sing four groups of 7 = TaKaTaTaKeTeMi TaKaTaTaKeTeMi TaKaTaTaKeTeMi TaKaTaTaKeTeMi 

Sing four groups of 8 = TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa TaKaTeMiTaKaJuNa 

Sing four groups of 9 = TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi TaKaTeMiTaTaKaTeMi 

Now that you are be able to sing these groupings 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 over 16th notes you can use these numbers to create phrases. For example if we took the number 20, in 16th notes that would put us in 5/4 time since 5 x 4 = 20. 

As 16th 5/4 = 44444 or TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi TaKeTeMi 

So how many other ways could we use different numbers or groups to add up to 20 thereby creating different phrasings over 16th notes. 

A few examples: 

20 = 44444 

20 = 56423 or 25463 or 54263 or 52467 etc 

a different set of numbers could be 

20 = 5672 or 7265 or 5726 or 6257 etc 

Let’s take the first example 56423, first, while clapping quarter notes, we’ll sing one bar of 16ths in 5/4 to get in the groove then we’ll sing the variation 56423

The written Konnokol is as follows: 

TaKeTeMi   TaKeTeMi   TaKeTeMi   TaKeTeMi   TaKeTeMi 

TaTiKeTaTom   TaKaTaKaTeMi    TaKaTeMi   TaKa   TaKaTa 

Try singing all the other variations, now you can see how different phrasing can be created by grouping notes other then the group inherent in that subdivision, and a new world of possibilities is opening up. 

If you play a melodic instrument try this with the example 52436. Take any 7 note scale start on the tonic for each rhythmic grouping number and play up the scale, or start on the next degree of the scale with each subsequent rhythmic grouping. Alternatively, each time you start a new rhythmic group jump one degree of the scale then go back one degree, so that the starting point pattern in terms of the degrees of the scale would look like this: 132435465761 the patterns are endless in terms of creating rhythmic melodic ideas or to use in soloing to create tension and resolution. You now have a means to explore endless rhythmic and melodic phrasing possibilities. 

It is important to note that in the South Indian Carnatic tradition where the art form of Konnokol originates and this methodology is widely used as a compositional tool; what is often referred to as a "calculation" in unison playing, that certain aesthetic rules are applied to what numbers combination may be employed.

It is quite simple, in order to make up a calculation, either only odd numbers are used, or only even numbers are used, or only numbers that have a sequential relationship. Therefore the first number series I proposed would be acceptable according to those rules, because the calculation of 56423 is made up of numbers that have a sequential relationship 23456. However the second series of number I proposed 5672, would not be deemed acceptable, because though 567 obviously have a sequential relationship the 2 does not have a sequential relationship to any of the other number in the series, therefore only the numbers 4 and 8 would be deemed acceptable to add to this series. In this ancient tradition these compositional aesthetics were refined over time. So to South Indian musicians to use number series outside of this framework may feel somewhat dissonant to the sensibilities they have developed over the course of their musical training and careers.
However, the Western musical traditions have not evolved in making these "calculations" a central thematic mechanism used within their compositional structures. Indeed, this method of phrasing is relatively isolated within the pantheon of Western Classical music, and only has made any kind of appearance in the West via Jazz Fusion, Progressive Rock and some Metal genres. Therefore, I think we can be forgiven for experimenting with any kind of number combination, since we are only at the beginning of our "calculation" journey.     

It’s a privilege to be able to share this with you, I will be posting more tutorial type entries of my rhythmic exploration of music on this blog.

Hope you enjoyed this piece, please let me know via the comment’s box, wishing you much success in your musical rhythmic endeavors! 

The Quorn. 

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