When you’re first starting to rhyme, it can be difficult to stay on beat – especially if you don’t know anything about music.
But learning how to rap on beat is an important part of becoming a rapper.
Sure, there are artists out there who sound good and aren’t on beat at all – it’s a style of rap you can choose to do.
But if you’re reading this post, you are probably a rapper that wants to be able to flow properly on any instrumental you come across.
If you’re brand new to rap, learn how to rap for beginners first.
So how can you improve your timing when rapping?
Find Your Rhythm
Being able to rap on beat is really all about finding your internal sense of rhythm.
All music is just the change in sound across time. So you need to be able to work with the timing of your lyrics.
You need to understand that a song is made up of small sections called “bars” or “measures” of music.
And each of those measures can be divided in different ways, with a different number of notes in them.
We have a whole guide on rhythm and time in music in our “Music Theory” section, so check that out if you want to dive deeper.
But for now…
Learn How to Count Music
The first thing you should do is learn how to count in music. It’s really easy – let’s do it here.
Turn on your favorite song.
As you listen to it, naturally nod your head or tap your foot along to it.
When you’re tapping/nodding consistently, start to count in your head in groups of 4 (for most songs) – “1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4.”
Each tap/nod gets one count.
Congratulations, you’re counting in 4/4 time. And most popular music is made in 4/4 time.
What that means is that there are 4 beats to every measure/bar of music. And each beat represents a “quarter note.”
There are different note values, depending on how you divide up each bar/measure. More on that in a second…
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Pay Attention to Your Syllables
When it comes to rapping, you have to pay special attention to the syllables of each word you use.
If you’re not familiar with what a syllable is, it’s basically the emphasis points of a word.
So for example, the word “good” has 1 syllable, because there’s only one emphasis point.
But a word like “contagious” has 3 syllables or emphasis points – “con,” “ta,” and “gious.”
When you’re rapping, you’re going to relate the syllables of each word to specific beats and subdivisions of beats to stay on beat.
Matching Syllables to Note Values
The trick to learning how to rap on beat is to match your syllables to different note values.
Above we counted out 4 beats for every bar of music. You nodded your head along to a song, and each nod got a count. And you counted in groups of 4.
Now you can match syllables to each of those beats.
Try it out with something simple – we’ll rap a line of 8 single syllable words, one word per beat:
“I can’t get you out of my head.”
Rap that line, saying each word on each beat while listening to that song again (ignore the lyrics of the song and just rap over it).
So each time you tap your foot or nod your head, you’ll be saying one of the words in that line. Try to be as exact as you can – saying each word every time your foot taps or head nods.
Go slow if you need to. But each word should be as close to each beat as possible.
Congratulations, you’re rapping quarter notes ON BEAT.
That’s pretty basic – but it can get VERY intrictate.
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So remember how I said there are 4 beats in each bar of more popular music? Well those notes can be divided even further.
You can divide each of those 4 beats in half and end up with 8 possible “beat subdivisions” (called “eighth notes).
Think of it like this. You counted “1, 2, 3, 4” to each beat of that song above. Now, do the same thing, nodding or tapping your foot on every beat.
But this time you’re going to count each beat, and the space in between each beat. So instead of making 4 sounds – 1 on every beat – you’ll make 8 sounds, 2 sounds for every tap/nod of your foot or head.
So start counting “1-&, 2-&, 3-&, 4-&” – the 1/2/3/4 gets said each time your foot taps or head nods, while the “&’s” (pronounce it “and”) get said in between each tap/nod of your foot or head.
Now use that same line above (“I can’t get you out of my head”) and try rapping it using only eighth notes. You’re basically doubling up the speed at which you say the line.
Each word gets said for each time you counted – “I can’t” on “1-&,” “get you” on the “2-&,” etc.
I hope so, because we can divide those even more. Cut them in half again into “sixteenth notes,” and we have 4 separate sounds for each time you nod your head or tap your foot (i.e. for each “beat”).
Now you’re going to be counting “1-e-&-a, 2-e-&-a, 3-e-&-a, 4-e-&-a” – essentially making 4 sounds every time your foot taps or head nods.
If you’re having trouble with this, it can help to switch to a much slower song to do this exercise to, especially when starting out.
Use the same single-syllable line from above (“I can’t get you out of my head”), but this time you’re going to say 4 of the words for each beat of music. “I can’t get you” for the 1 count, “out of my head” for the 2 count, and then repeat for counts 3 and 4.
Congratulations you’re rapping on beat using 16th notes.
Tips for Staying on Beat When Rapping
Obviously the above examples and exercises are very simple ones to get you used to the idea of counting in music, syllables in your rhymes and combining them together.
But naturally, things can get much more complex and intricate in how you use those beats and spaces along with your words.
And that’s how you end up with amazing flows and rhythms from some of your favorite rappers. They’re able to play around with time, beats, syllables and space very effectively.
Here are a couple tips to keep in mind to help you get better at rapping on beat.
Develop Your Pocket
It’s important that you practice saying lines in various ways, using various numbers of syllables per word and different note lengths together.
You just have to try things out. Remember that you’re going to fail and you’re going to sound stupid when you’re first figuring it out.
That’s totally fine.
You want to spend time playing around with these concepts and trying different things so you can develop your own pocket or groove (i.e. how you navigate the beat when you’re rhyming).
It’s going to be distinct and natural to you. Once you figure it out, you’ll always be able to rap on beat, no matter how complex/intricate your rhymes get.
Don’t Use Too Many Words
One of the biggest causes of new rappers not being able to rap on beat is their writing. They just use too many words to try and get an idea across.
And that can lead to not having enough space to effectively wrap your syllables around the beats of the instrumental.
So if you can’t get a specific line out while staying on beat, try reducing the words you’re using or changing up how you say what you’re saying.
This can be a problem when rappers don’t re-write their lyrics. They think the first draft of their shit is “good enough.”
Re-write your stuff until you have something that works most effectively for what you’re trying to do/so.
If your line “I’m gonna have a mental breakdown” (9 syllables) doesn’t fit a bar/measure well enough for you, try something like “bout to have a breakdown” (6 syllables) instead.
When you’re first starting out, it can seem almost impossible to stay on beat.
But the reality is, that’s just because you haven’t worked on developing your internal sense of rhythm enough.
Do the exercises above over and over in as many different ways as you can think of. Play around with words, syllables and beats and make sure you’re always nodding/tapping along with the instrumental you’re rapping over.
It can even be helpful to just spend time counting along to music out loud. Count in quarter notes, eighth note, and sixteenth notes.
If you do those things, you’ll quickly find and refine your personal “pocket” and groove.
If you are ready to get your music out there to the world, I highly recommend you use Tunecore – they’re an affordable way to release unlimited music to Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and more.
Thanks for reading this article on how to rap on beat – I hope it helped you improve your rhythm.