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Rhythm is a seemingly simple matter – but how is it actually possible that something can move us almost automatically, as if we were puppets on strings? | Photo: Nicholas Jeffries (Unsplash)
Rhythm is a seemingly simple matter – but how is it actually possible that something can move us almost automatically, as if we were puppets on strings? | Photo: Nicholas Jeffries (Unsplash)
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Music is Not Rocket Science #4: Rhythm and Tempo

They say that music is a shortcut to your heart – and if the rhythm is right, we may put it that it goes straight to your lower limbs, which, as if by magic, start moving on their own (otherwise known as dancing). Elvis Costello once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. This is doubly true in the case of our topic today. Yet we will try and seek answers to the question of what rhythm actually is and why we cannot resist its lure.

We may have never realized that not all music necessarily has rhythm. Ligeti, Xenakis and Stockhausen composed opuses with a rich sonic palette which, however, lacked the typical regular pulse. Pieces composed for the qin, the ancient Chinese plucked instrument, have notations specifying different note lengths and even the way in which they are to be strummed, but there is no stable metre. But these are rather rare cases and the vast majority of music in all corners of the earth has a stable rhythm and pulse.

In the tradition of Western music (American and European), we feel a binary rhythmic division. Everything can be divided and multiplied by two. A whole note consists of two half notes, two half notes of four quarter notes, four quarter notes of eight eighth notes, and so on. Songs have a regular structure with two, four or eight-bar phrases. Our favourite meter is 4/4. In short, everything can be nicely stacked into a square. Some scientists have theorized that this is due to the natural rhythm of marching and dancing when we regularlyalternate our two lower limbs. That kind of makes sense, doesn't it?

However, this concept gets a beating in the Balkan Peninsula, where the rhythmic pulse works on combinations of two and three. This gives their music a completely different character, everything being in odd rhythm patterns. Of the five typical Balkan dance styles, only one is in 2/4 meter, the other four are in 9/16, 7/8 (two of them) and 5/4.

These rhythmic combinations, atypical for us, can be found in progressive music. Playing odd meters is understood as a sign of virtuosity and uniqueness (e.g. Dream Theater and similar bands), but for the cultures of Eastern Europe and the Balkans it is a perfectly natural perception of rhythm and part of traditional culture. Funny examples of our dependence on a regular meter are sophisticated pieces written in odd time signature – Blue Rondo à la Turk by jazzman Dave Brubeck in 9/8, or Pink Floyd's Money with a riff in 7/4, which, when the musicians are supposed to solo, automatically switch to the old good 4/4 pulse.

If you play the metronome without the accented first time, you'll get a robotic ticking pulse, but it's hardly going to kick you into any dancing or headbanging action. Put accents on different beats, use beats on different parts of the drum kit (kick or snare drum) and suddenly you produce so-called a groove. You then only use the metronome to keep the BPM (beat per minute) constant. Experienced musicians, however, naturally slow down or shorten rhythmic phrases according to their feel. If you play what's called grid, which means being extremely precise and placing your tones (or in the case of a drummer, shots, on a specific part of the kit) perfectly aligned with the pulse of the metronome, you'll have a sonically perfect rhythm, but no one will dance to it or nod their heads. How is that possible?

A common explanation is the "human" argument – the romantic notion that if something is too perfect, it lacks the hallmark of humanness. If someone talks like a robot, it sounds monotonous and boring to us. After a while, we stop perceiving the content and our minds start to wander. It's the same with rhythm. It has a hierarchy with clearly accented beats that indicate the beginning and end of a phrase. Our brains love it when they can identify a rhythmic pattern and then start anticipating it themselves. We are exceptionally gifted at this!

Musicians play with different types of rhythms and patterns to keep the listener on their toes. They often do this instinctively – no doctor's degree in music theory required. Changing dynamics, note lengths, accents, tone colour, all create a complex spectrum of not only rhythm but a musical whole that either entertains or leaves us cold. Silence is also a very effective rhythmic trick – you simply stop playing and then hit the first beat along with the other instruments. And the crowd is ecstatic!

Or you can deliberately confuse them with the polyrhythmic phrase leading, only to then return to the simple and clear form of a 4/4 bar (a popular trick with jazz and virtuoso drum and percussion players in particular and virtuoso players in general). African, Indian and Indonesian musical traditions are based on playful polyrhythms, which are often taken as a challenge to other musicians not to lose the metre (or sam, the name for pulse in the Indian tradition).

Our sense of regular rhythm, on the other hand, is not as strong as we often think. Even people with no musical training or experience have no problem clapping four beats to a waltz rhythm or adding or subtracting a beat, a half-beat or a whole beat at any time during a song. I've played with a few enthusiastic amateurs and the only reason they would suddenly lose rhythm in the middle of a song was that they just lacked practice. They weren't trained enough in the clearly defined rhythmic structures of popular music. The early bluesmen often played their nostalgic blues in thirteen bars instead of twelve, or skipped a beat here and there, only to have these little lapses of attention diligently imitated later as signs of genius or true blues "feel".

Scientists say the rhythm is inborn with us, nor has the pulse of our mother's heart been shown to help us in any way, but we are certainly unique in our recognition of the repeating pulse in sound waves. That's not the same as rhythm or meter, but it certainly helps us in that regard. The rhythmic synchronization that is essential to our musical cooperation and experience of music is similar to the principle of interconnected oscillators. You may have discussed an example in physics class where you have two pendulums mounted on a common base that at some point become completely synchronized in their motion through their mutual vibrations. It works similarly at a drummer's convention, during spontaneous clapping at a concert, or while playing an electrifying riff at a rock band rehearsal.

Many animals can produce regularly recurring sounds or movements, but they cannot synchronize themselves to an external pulse the way any musician can when he or she puts on a metronome to practice or adjusts to the tempo of a song while playing in an orchestra or other musical ensemble where multiple musicians must work together.

Enjoy this cool ability of ours, work on your rhythmic skills and imagination, and most importantly – don't be afraid of the metronome. It's nothing more than a simple oscillator that helps you not speed up or slow down.


Philip Ball: The Music Instinct

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Tagy music is not rocket science Rhythm tricks metre bpm rhythm bar

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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.