How to Use Rhythmic Curves as an Arranging & Composing Tool

When I was in high school, I purchased an arranging book by Russell Garcia, and in it he talked about the concept of using (what he called) “rhythmic curves”. The idea was to write phrases just based on rhythm – no harmony or melody – just rhythm.

I guess I really didn’t realize it but I’ve used this concept countless times when coming up with ensemble passages, or new melodies for tunes. Stripping away melody and harmony forces you to think of rhythm as the main element of a melody, and you can really concentrate on getting phrases just right by varying rhythmic snippets to result in interesting longer phrases.

In this tutorial, I took a few tunes and isolated only the rhythm of the first 8 bars or so. These are random standard tunes I thought of off the top of my head. See if you can identify all of them just by the rhythmic structure of their melodies.

This concept comes in really handy when writing a new tune over standard chord changes. Come up with a number of rhythmic curves first, then experiment with new melodies based on those rhythmic phrases.

Good luck!  NOTE: I do not identify the actual tunes in this video, but the answers will popup at the end of the video.

I just noticed I rushed the tempo of the first example! Sorry about that!

Would you be interested in a jazz tune writing class, then arranging small group charts on the class member original tunes?

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15 Replies to “How to Use Rhythmic Curves as an Arranging & Composing Tool”

  1. Alan Huskie

    7-18-13 Thanks. I would be interested in the
    jazz tune writing class. How bout “Scat Singing” ??

  2. Martin nickless

    Hi good lesson
    Would it be possible to post some contrapuntal lessons
    In the near future

  3. Michael Viñas

    I used the Russel Garcia book in college! I’m going to break it out and reference it more often. Nice review of rhythmic curves. Thanks for jogging the memory!

  4. Ric Flauding

    Russ Garcia book (#1) was first formal writing book I bought (many years ago) when I was studying with Barney Kessel. Schillinger also has some great concepts (actually that’s where Garcia got his) on rhythmic curves and permutations.

  5. Jim Martin

    Martin: I will put the contrapunctal idea on the list. I’ll have to think of how to approach that topic.

  6. Jim Martin

    Alan: Scat singing? That one would be beyond my expertise. Tune writing gets right down to fundamentals in lots of areas, and it would be nice to then take class member tunes and do charts on them.

  7. onscuba

    Interesting idea, using rhythm as a jumping off point. I’d love an intro into how to approach(create) harmony/ chords from “any” melody. I’m no keyboard player so can’t doodle chords on a piano.

  8. Joe LaRosa

    Just wondering if you had a chance to listen to the mp3 files I emailed you from our “Dancing to Simply Swing” CD we released this spring. We’re about half through a challenging summer schedule of about 20 gigs that is going nicely. Best

  9. David Cannaday


    Thanks, I’ve got the Garcia books Volume I and Two. I ,had forgotten about them Good Lesson.


  10. Jim Martin

    Keep in mind guys, its been awhile since I read this concept in Russ’s book, so he might approach it in a different manner than I did, but the concept is basically the same.

    I think the point I was trying to really make is that you could write a tune (or ensemble section to a lesser extent)using only rhythm first, then figure out the melody later. This would especially work well if you already have chord changes (i.e. writing a new tune over a standard tune’s changes)

  11. Class Member

    Hi Jim,

    I very much enjoy your enthusiasm, style and approach.

    I realise the difficulty of pleasing each member but here goes.

    In checking Nestico I realise the importance of a chord for each note. A technique or just knowledge and skill, Whatever… I found it makes a huge difference to the completed score but I need more guidance.

    A lesson here perhaps?

    Len Phillips

  12. Jim Martin

    Len, I’m not sure what you mean by a “chord for each note”. You would have to give me a specific example of what you are referring to.

  13. Kenneth Jackson

    Hey Jim, This is great for me. At times rhythms are one of my weaknesses and I try working on it more and more to become good. At times I just have a music pad and think of what I hear in a rhythm and try writing it down and see if I count it right. It seems too me that the most important thing in arranging are the rhythmic feel and articulations.

    Kenny Jakson

  14. Jim Martin

    Kenneth, your comment is spot on – rhythm can make or break a line, a tune, or an ensemble section of a chart. Articulations are also extremely important because ultimately, an arranger has to convey every aspect of how he wants the chart to sound, and that should include as many articulations as needed to convey that information.

    A big band can play a quarter note short and light, long, or with a “fat” sound (housetop accent). There are times when too many articulations can muddy up the notation.

    Ex. In a swing style, 2 eighths should sound like “du-dot” be default. But I’ve played many Basie type charts where there is a tenuto followed by a staccato, just in case there is a question by the player. Don’t be afraid to include any and all articulations you need to convey what you want.

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