What is music? And how important is rhythm to it?

The importance of Identifiable Rhythm in music

What is music? This is probably the most important question for students at university studying music today. In the past hundred years there has been an explosion of new forms of music from the serial works of Boulez and Babbitt or the aleatoric music of Cage & Stockhausen into the arrhythmic music of music acousmatique and the new complexity of Ferneyhough & Fox. You could even explore the vast new forms of modern pop music with Urban, HipHop & Rap which stemmed from Jazz, Jive, Blues, Soul or Gospel and wonder just what qualifies as music.

Regardless of your musical taste, chances are there is a form of "music" out there that you struggle with, find it difficult to get your head around, wonder if you can actually call it "music" and yet, there are fans of every type of music that will swear if you just listen to it long enough....

Well, I'm not sure I believe that premise. Here's why:

I have been reading a book by Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia - a book about the effects of music on the mind, in particular the nervous system. Much of this book deals with how the brain and music interact, in many ways unique to any other form of "communication" or interaction with nature. It is through reading this book that I have come to the conclusion there is something "natural" about some forms of music, music which actually connects with our brains in ways that other "music" does not. While I can not provide a clear line as to what makes certain forms of musical expression "music" and others "non-music," I do feel we are coming closer to understanding what music needs to contain to really be called music, to be that which makes our foot start tapping, or our neurons fire where they otherwise might be dormant.

Rhythm & Movement. In Chapter 19, Oliver Sacks writes about Rhythm and Movement. He speaks about how music is used in therapy of patients who have suffered damage to a limb which has forced it to be immobile for a period of time, and how music is used to help the patient regain use of it.

I saw a patient at a nursing home - an old lady with an apparently paralyzed and useless left leg. She had suffered a complex hip fracture, followed by surgery and many weeks of immobility in a cast. Surgery had been successful, but her leg remained strangely inert and useless... We bombarded her with dance tunes, especially Irish jigs, and saw for ourselves how her leg responded. It took several months, for the leg had become very atrophied; nevertheless, with music, she was not only able to delight in her own quasi-automatic motor responses--which soon included walking--but to extract from them an ability to make whatever discrete, voluntary movement she desired.
The muscles in her leg, on the command of her neurons, were responding to the rhythm of the music recalling memories she had somehow forgotten (or been severed in the surgery).

Later in the chapter a competitive athlete expresses how music helped him obtain a personal best.

I have been a competitive cyclist for a number of years and have always been interested in the individual time trial, an event that pits the rider against the clock only... One day, in the early stage of an important time trial event, a few bars of the overture to "Orpheus in the Underworld" by Offenbach started playing in my head. This was wonderful--it stimulated my performance, settled my cadence at just the right tempo, and synchronized my physical efforts with my breathing. Time collapsed. I was truly in the zone, and for the first time in my life, I was sorry to see the finish line. My time was a personal best.
Numerous physical trainers use music along with training, from Jazzercize classes to weight training. Whether it's just to get the mind off the physical effort, or there is something else more subliminal is difficult to say, but it does work.

Another example in this chapter discusses patients with frontal lobe damage who "lose the ability carry out complex chain of actions--to dress, for example." These people may be taught to complete these same actions if the tasks are set to music such as simple childhood songs. This same sort of learning is done with children of every culture in songs and rhymes to help children learn lists, numbers or the alphabet.

Oliver Sacks suggests "embedding of words, skills or sequences in melody and meter is uniquely human." While I have no experience or knowledge of any other animal using rhythm and meter to pass on tasks to their offspring, the fact humans certain do this is reason enough to suggest rhythm has a strong association with how the mind works.

Rhythm of Language The mind likes rhythm. John Iverson, a neuroscientist and avid drummer discovered while all societies like to group patterns into rhythms, the native language of the listener affects what sort of groups they preferred. American English speakers preferred short-long parsing of rhythms, while Japanese speakers preferred the opposite. However, even when the rhythmic pattern was regular, all speakers broke the pattern into familiar groupings - suggesting language plays a role in the rhythmic structure of the music it creates.

Leoš Janáček spent 30 years studying speech patterns, trying to discover a universal cadence in expressing moods. Much of his music incorporates these patterns. The popularity of his music outside the Czech speaking world suggests he may have in some way unlocked a key.

Social Rhythms All societies have some form of rhythmic dance. Not only is the dance a chance to be social, but the rhythms help release inhibitions. Oliver Sacks speaks about attending a Grateful Dead concert with a patient. "I saw the whole vast arena in motion with the music, eighteen thousand people dancing, transported, every nervous system there synchronized to the music."

As discussed earlier, children use rhythm to learn. This common ground of rhythm is not only an aid to memory but an integrative mimetic skill connecting muscles with memory. Dancer teachers speak of needing to teach correct posture and movement several times to overcome incorrect posture, giving the student a sense of "muscle memory." If a movement is learned incorrectly rhythmically, it will naturally revert to the incorrect movement when there is no music present. However, with the proper training, the correct movement can be "immediately" re-established by providing music.

None of what I have suggested here necessarily eliminates any of the forms of music I spoke of in the first paragraph from being called music. However, some of these forms push the bounds of rhythms to the point they may be bordering on being something other than music (at least in the sense of music needing a sense of rhythm).

If you have ever had the opportunity to hear Brian Ferneyhough's Unity Capsule for solo flute, you may have marveled at how the performer kept all the elements of the music in order. The music is an example of New Complexity, and the ability to perform this piece, along with many of the other pieces of this genre, require a rigid sense of internal rhythm. However, no matter how precise the performer is, few listeners will grasp a sense of beat, a sense of rhythm to the piece. Certainly there are rhythmic elements here and there, but the piece does not give the listeners a chance to grasp what the performers internal rhythm is, not in the way a Mozart or Beethoven piece does.

Luc Ferrari has been a huge influence in the world of music acousmatique. While it is possible to listen to some of his pieces of music acousmatique and gain a sense of structure--he is less concerned with differentiating between music and noise and more interested in the concept of acoustics--rhythm is almost entirely absent from some of his works in the 60's and 70's.

Cage's aleatoric music has a sense of rhythm, but only because a sense of rhythm was designed into the algorithm matrix used. Even then, because it is randomized, the rhythm is random and not repetitive, so it lacks the key that allows our brains to grasp the figure and recall it. Babbitt, on the other hand, incorporates a sense of jazz rhythms to much of his music, which (even though the melody may be beyond what some would call music), the rhythm is accessible.

Modern forms of pop music are highly rhythmic, some to the point of being primal. One of the appealing aspects to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps is the primal rhythms. Orff's Carmina Burana has that same appeal. Holst's The Planets, Copland's Appalachian Spring, Bernstein's West Side Story and Adams Nixon in China are all highly rhythmic, to the point it is possible to grasp a sense of rhythm on first hearing. The music may (or may not be) danceable (although certainly much of it has been choreographed), but it has a sense of rhythm that reaches the audience on a primal level.

I am not trying to say all forms of music need to be primal in their rhythms, but if the rhythm is so obfuscated it ceases to be accessible, then perhaps, yes, it has gone too far. Music and the mind are linked in ways we are just beginning to understand. In my opinion, if music doesn't connect with the mind on a sub-conscious level, then it really doesn't classify as music. It may be amazing in its own way (some of Ferrari's work is just that - but I don't classify it as music). We need to find some other way to classify it. Music is unique in the way it connects with us; to include things that don't have this same connection is (IMHO) a detriment to the world of music.


Rob said…
Your piece made me start thinking about Mahler's 2nd symphony and the way Mahler uses rhythm. In many ways he's a very rhythmic composer (all those military march interludes!) and rhythm plays a huge part in the impact of the "resurrections". Yet at some of the climaxes the rhythmic elements are either downplayed or completely absent. In the huge percussion crescendi in the last movement there is no rhythm at all, just a swelling noise of rolls on every piece of kit in the section, before the movement continues into another very rhythmic section. And the final climax is in a very pedestrian 4/4 and makes its impact wholly through harmonic effects: well, that and the orchestration which gets up to window-shattering levels (remember the bit in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the mothership responds to the human tunes and blows out all their windows?) I think Mahler enjoys showing off that yes, he can write irresistibly rhythmic tunes (2nd and 3rd movts are both great examples) but he can also use stillness or near-stillness of rhythm while working on the listener in other dimensions such as dynamics and harmony.

In the same way a piece like Tallis's Spem in Alium presents a very fuzzy kind of rhythmic pulse to the listener, who typically loses track of where the barlines (ane sometimes the beat) are, until the big climaxes when the whole choir comes into phase and the rhythm clarifies itself wonderfully. I think some of the best composers deliberately play with making their rhythms overt or hard-to-find as another variable. As you say, the Rite of Spring is incredibly rhythmic: but can you listen to the opening section without a score and tell where the beats are? On paper it lacks the constant time signature changes of the Danse Sacrale, but it also lacks the "groove" that Stravinsky provides in the latter section, and casts the listener adrift. (This listener, at any rate!)
Chip Michael said…
I don't think the beat has to be something you can dance to or even tap your foot to, but there ought to be some sort of pulse, even if the listener can't determine where the bar lines are (IMHO - I prefer that kind of music).

Where I think "music" has gone adrift is when there is nothing to grasp in terms of pulse.

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