Part 1: Grammar

by John Anthony Martinez ’87

Recently, I had the honor of conducting a masterclass, along with keyboard synth pioneer and Johns Hopkins University Professor Thomas Dolby, on the rhythm section at Oxford University. My lecture examined questions such as: What is time? What is rhythm? How do we define a rhythm section and what are the roles or functions that the individual members play in it? What does it mean to groove?

I firmly believe that words have meaning; if they don’t, then the idea of communicating clearly and coherently becomes nonsensical and unattainable. You can understand what you are reading because at some point in your life you were taught grammar. Fundamentally, grammar deals with identifying and naming things and distinguishing them from one another. For example, someone once taught you that a particular thing was a house and another thing was a cat, and that a cat was not a house and vice versa.

You may be asking yourself at this point, “What does this have to do with music?” I would respond, “Everything!” In order to make the best music we possibly can with other musicians, and to use our time most efficiently, it is helpful to be able to communicate with each other using every tool at our disposal. These tools might include verbal directions, sheet music, demonstrations, written instructions, and so forth. The more tools we have in our tool boxes, the more successful we will be in conveying our ideas to one another. But this concept only works if the other musicians we are working with also understand how to operate these tools.

For instance, if a composer hands out some music where measure 33 instructs the rhythm section to play a double-time feel and not everyone in the rhythm section has been taught what that means or understands it the same way, the music will fall apart at bar 33. This means valuable time will be wasted either discussing or debating the meaning of double-time feel.

One of the most significant contributions that Berklee makes is the faculty’s commitment to building the musical vocabulary of its students. Every student learns the same musical grammar, and it is always a thrill to work with other Berklee alumni because we immediately speak the same musical language. This does not kill creativity or individuality anymore than me writing in English makes me think or write like William Shakespeare. We are not clones of each other, but it does make communicating ideas and getting down to the business of music-making much easier. Shouldn’t that be one of the main goals of any education in music?


Martinez, an alumnus of Berklee College of Music and Oxford University, is an in-demand drummer, songwriter, producer, and Managing Partner of Rhythm IntensiveTM. He founded Fingerfoot Music Productions in 1999 and is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ Grammy Awards.

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©2015 by John Anthony Martinez. All rights reserved.