Exploring Music's Complexities



Much has been written about human capability to integrate perceptions of music, tones, timbre. pitch, intervals, melody, harmony, and  rhythm, into often intense and profound emotional reactions.  What is it about music that connects us and allows us to communicate with others regardless of language or nationality?  How do we learn “how to hear music?  What is it that needs to be listened to?  What is it that makes music so powerful?

This series of articles will provide a tour of musical concepts, procedures, and styles with the hope the reader’s curiosity is stimulated to research more on the subject.  The aim is to provide an introduction to the “power of music”.  The first stop on the journey is Rhythm.

What is rhythm?

Rhythm is an important aspect of music to study when looking  at responses to music.  As with living organisms music has beats or pulses.  These beats provide a framework for combining notes of different duration.  Beats give music its regular rhythmic patterns. The groupings of strong and weak beats is called meter (1).  The meter signature is at the beginning of every music piece.  It is the two numbers written after the clef.  The number on top tells you the number of beats in a measure; the number at the bottom tells you what note gets the beat.  They are grouped together in a measure, the notes and rests correspond to a certain number of beats.   These sounds and silences are put together to form patterns of sounds that are repeated to create rhythm (1).

In his series “How Music Works”, http://www.brainpicking.org ., Howard Goodall suggests human rhythm recalls the regularity with which we walk and the heartbeat we heard in the womb (2).  This human affinity for rhythm is thought to be so fundamental it can’t be lost by strokes (3).  This rhythm is at once dependent on the human ability to recognize a beat. Laurance O’Donnell proposes that rhythm is comprised of two different responses..  The first is the actual hearing of the rhythm and the second is the physical response to it (4).   It is what organizes movement and is therefore very much related to the human body. Because of the relationship it is necessary to talk about beat (pulse) before we can understand rhythm.

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The Four-Beat or 4/4 time signature provides an explicit steady beat.  It may take the form of a nice four-beat rhythm by bass players and drummers or members of a “rhythm section.” In this situation there are 4 quarter notes per measure or a strong accent every four-quarter notes.  The Two-Beat or 2/4 time consists of accents on beats 1 and 3 and is mainly provided by bass playing.  The Two-Beat is often associated with early styles of jazz in which bass instruments express the “om? in the oom-pah om pah rhythm in marches and rags.  The Three-quarter time (3/4) has 3 beats per measure and quarter notes get one beat. Normally, even the most complex meters may be broken down into a chain of duple and triple beats.

Rhythm in music is more than just beats.  It is the basic temporal element of music.  The rhythmic tension of music is of value in eliciting emotional responses in the listener. Rhythm provides a simple, reliable framework for performance regardless of the tempo markings.. The alteration of the strong and weak beat has its history in poetry, dance, and music.  The ties to the characteristic rhythms of each country are built on the physical movements of its dancers.  Waltzes and mazurkas may have a three-beat measure but are very different.  Our culture teaches us to expect certain musical patterns, which over time, are wired into our brain (3).  These beats may vary with some being stronger, or longer or shorter or softer than others and turn listeners into active participants who respond to the rhythm of chanting or dancing (3)   In music it is what creates movement and flow.

The passing on of rhythmic phrases and patterns from generation to generation has taken many different approaches.  African and Indian music it has primarily been passed on orally. Rhythm is also described as the sole of music and many different kinds of music have their roots in folk music.  In Western music rhythms are usually arranged with respect to a time signature.  In the 21st Century, Stravinsky, Bartok and Steve Reich wrote rhythms using odd meters and techniques such as phrasing and additive rhythms.  LaMonte Young wrote music in which the music consists only of long sustained tones (1).  In the 1930s Henry Cowell wrote music involving multiple periodic rhythms and collaborated with Leon Theremic to invent Rhythmicon the first electronic rhythmic machine.  Conlon Nancarrow wrote for the player piano.

While we recognize jazz and classical music have many differences there are several areas of similarity or at least crossover.  A musical aspect common to a majority of both classical and jazz music is the use of regular rhythmic groove which is often in 4/4 time and emphasizes the backbeat of the “2” and “4” of a 1-2-3-4 rhythmic count.  One finds flexibility of rhythm in Classical music.  A composition will have numerous rhythmic patters and unexpected pauses, syncopations with frequent changes from long notes to shorter ones occurring either suddenly or gradually.  In contrast to drumbeats, beats in classical music are implied. Stylized dance music and music based on dance rhythms pervade Bach’s compositions.

 Flexibility and Variety

Over the years one does not see many changes to the concepts of meter and rhythm.  However, in the modern area rhythm has become more important and has taken on characteristics of flexibility and variety.  Among these changes are:  new time signatures such as 5/8 and 7/8; asymmetrical groupings of notes for new rhythmic effects; non-metric music, polymeric music; multimetric music and displaced bar lines providing accents in recurring patterns.  In his book, A History of Popular Music, Piero Scaruffe suggests that both jazz and rhythm’n’ blues may not have happened if Tin Pan Alley had not been stuck in a creative crisis.  A similar situation took place in the 1970s when young people looked at black music such as hip-hop. (See exempts at http://www.scaruffi.com).


1.  Espic, Estrella.  The Elements of Music.  http://musiced.about.com.

2.  Goodall, Howard.  How Music Works -2, Part 1.  www.brainpicking.org

3.  Sacks, Oliver.  Musicophilia.  Tales of Music and the Brain.  New York, Toronto:  Alfred a Knopf.  pp .239-240.

4.  O’Donnell,  Music and the Grain.  http://cerebromente.org.


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