The Nuts and Bolts of Music - Part One: Rhythm
et's begin with what is probably the most fundamental and intuitive musical element of all--rhythm. Everybody knows what rhythm is, right? But could we define it in words? Well, a good start would be to say that rhythm is the one element of music that we feel rather than hear. Of course, instruments and voices make sounds in rhythm, but rhythm itself is a visceral--not an aural--thing, that can exist whether there is sound or not; that's why music students so often have trouble trying to follow a metronome, because that diabolical contraption of necessity has to make rhythm into something that is heard instead of felt.
This article includes musical illustrations in MIDI sound; to hear them, click on each example separately as you come to it. The linked musical examples will open in a separate tab or window.
Just what is it that we feel? A beat, you might say, and this not only rings true but gets--literally--to the heart of the matter: our own bodies are rhythmic; we feel our own pulse, our own heartbeat, our own movements, as repetitive pulsations. And so it would be pretty accurate to say that, of all music's individual elements, rhythm is probably the most fundamental of all.
Another thing we can say at the outset is
that, unless altered temporarily by specific directions, musical rhythm is
regular: its beats come in
uniformly recurring units of time rather than erratically--another aspect of
rhythm that is mirrored in our own bodies by, say, a steady walk or a
healthy resting pulse.
Rhythm in music generally manifests itself in three ways:
Let's do some fooling around with the three different components of rhythm, using good old "Happy Birthday". We've already illustrated a change of tempo; what if we changed the meter? Suppose we fitted the song into a meter of two beats instead of three? We'd have to speed up parts of the pattern to allow for the 'missing' beat in each measure [Ex.11]. Now, fitting it into four beats would force us instead to lengthen some of the notes of the pattern, because each measure now has an extra beat compared to the original [Ex.12]. The notes have not been changed in any way except length, but notice again that changing the meter forced us also to change the pattern, in order to keep the words lined up with the downbeats. Changing the meter to two, while keeping the original pattern (which was designed for three), would throw the two components out of sync with each other [Ex.13]. Weird!
See if you can recognize another familiar tune when both meter and pattern have been altered [Ex.14]. That's right, we took our favorite march and made a waltz out of it. O.K. then, to be fair, let's turn a waltz into a march [Ex.15].
The late Alec Templeton came up with this last
caper; he called it "The Danube Blue Forever" (Templeton was the Victor
Borge of his day). But surprisingly few people realize how often the great
composers themselves used tricks of rhythm (as well as many other elements)
in ways fully intended to be capricious and even downright funny. Haydn,
Mozart and Beethoven, in particular, often employed shenanigans such as
sudden stops and starts, displaced accents, abrupt tempo changes,
out-of-sync patterns and the like, in their lighter compositions. If you'd
like to track some of them down, you might start here:
It is one of the basic premises of this series of articles, and indeed of our entire web site, that music should be fun -- and we hope to help point the way.