Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rhythm: The Essence of Music

Thaut, Michael. “The Structure of Rhythm.” In Rhythm, Music, and the Brain: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Applications, 1-17. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Summary of the Chapter:
In this Chapter, Thaut basically defines music and its elements, especially the rhythmic ones.
Thaut begins by describing music as a language-like form of communication, which is similar to speech. Both have pitch, timbre, accents, duration, intensity, and inflection; both have syntactical structure (i.e. grammar and sentence structure vs. musical form and structure); and both are affected by, and derive meaning from, a cultural context. However, there are some key differences: music has a lack of semantic or referential meaning. In music, the sounds are abstract, and do not denote or refer to specific objects, events, or concepts, as in speech/language. Also, music is neurologically processed in a different way.

Music communicates meaning in three different ways:
- Indexically (where music is associated with extramusical material)
- Ironically (where music has a likeness to extramusical events/experiences)
- Symbolically (where musical events communicate roles and values)

The character of music is temporal; it is an art form that exists in time. Music can be perceived as both sequential (for example, a moving melody line) and simultaneous (for example, a chord). Rhythm is used to create formal meaning in music, in that it binds music’s simultaneity and sequentiality in an organizational form.

Defining and describing rhythm further, there are two core aspects of temporal organization:
- Periodicity (events grouped into successive sequences of equal time/space content)
- Subdivision (similarity of internal structures among the grouped events)

Rhythm allows the perception of larger units and events in music, while imposing order. It also helps with cognition, by creating anticipation and predictability. These, in turn, create expectations and predictions that, when met or not met, give rise to emotional meaning in music.
The perception and formation of rhythm in music is based on the entrainment of oscillatory circuits in the brain. Different oscillatory circuits respond individually to different periodicities in the spectrum of complex rhythmic patterns. This set-up gives the brain more flexibility in perceiving, processing, forming, and modulating rhythms than would be possible from “stopwatch-like” mechanisms in the brain. What this means is that the human mind can accommodate time adaptations such as rubato and ritardando, without distorting the perception of an overall coherent temporal structure.
Thaut then went on to talk about specific elements of time and rhythm in music, such as “rhythmic pulses.” Rhythmic pulses act as “event markers” in the periodicity of music. Pulses divide the flow of time into regular reference points, and create a framework for the synchronization of many musical elements. Pulses establish anticipation and predictability and act as constraints that do not change throughout a sequence.
“Beats,” on the other hand, are time points of temporal positions rather than durations. They can be simultaneous with the rhythmic pulse, or differ from it. “Beat events” can contribute to the idea of slowing or rushing in contrast to the underlying, steady, and unmoving pulse. When beats come slightly after the pre-established pulse rate, for example, they can create the sense of a slowing tempo in music.
Tempo is a large-scale organizational form in music, where rhythmic pattern events (such as beats and pulses) occur within it. A fluctuating tempo does not necessarily undermine the feeling of a pulse, which is interesting to note.
In summary, the tempo is how fast or slow a piece of music is, on a large scale. The pulse acts like metronome ticks, and keeps time. Beats are events overtop of the pulse, acting as temporal points and activity in the music.

A few other key rhythmic elements in music:
- The accent (an expressive device created by changes in loudness, duration, timbre, and pitch contour). Regular groupings of accents give measures, and repeated accents give a sense of coherence to music. Accents also define musical meter.
- Meter. Meter occurs with an underlying pulse; meter actually organizes the pulse. Beat events come within the meter and pulse framework. The metric pulse acts as a framework, or reference.

Thaut then brings up the question of whether or not humans have a biological mechanism for the categorical tempo perception that also produces our sense of proportional time and tempo-keeping. Rhythm is an element that has appeared in almost all musical cultures, albeit it at different structural levels. This could suggest biological factors as underlying mechanisms for rhythmic formation and understanding.
Rhythmic and time elements in music can be used to represent spatial images, extensions and distances, and multi-dimensional forms. Rhythm affects the PERCEPTION OF TIME. Rhythm could potentially enhance brain operations through providing structure and anticipation in time, and could help learning and perception.

My Response:
I believe that sometimes music can mimic speech in sound and function. For instance, in certain African cultures there are talking drums, which use rhythms and pitches to convey a message. Music mimicking speech, or language, even occurs in the western tradition. An interesting, if perhaps unrelated, sample can be found in Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote tone poem. In this, brass chords and noises literally sound like the bleeting of sheep; so music is being used to mimic the language of animals. And music is used to express words and language especially in song. Music heightens the meaning of words by adding imagery, and extra sound and emotional quality to the words. I believe that this is a language function.
On another note, I would like to talk a bit about my own difficulties with rhythm. Often, I will record myself so that I can critique my playing, and listen to it with a critical ear. What I have consistently found is that my rhythm, or pulse, is not steady. This occurs even when I play with the aim of having a steady beat and tempo. I believe there is a distinct discrepancy between our perception of the rhythm of the music we play, and its actual rhythm and steadiness. Perhaps this comes from having so much to think about when playing music. There is intonation, muscle coordination, musicality ... the list goes on. But if our mind works in those “oscillatory circuits” that Thaut described, why is it so difficult to entrain part of our brains to play a steady rhythm, while other parts of the brain cover the other aspects of music? Or is this a personal difficulty of mine that others do not share? And if so, how do I overcome it?
I absolutely believe that any element of music can be related back to rhythm. Time and music are so intrinsically linked! Take pitch, for example. Even pitch has a rhythmic element. It is measured in Hertz, which amount to cycles per second. This means that pitch, the physical sound of music, is a series of pulses (or beat events) in a periodic pattern. Sound exists in time, pitch exists in time, timbre exists in time, and music exists in time.
Lastly, I fully agree that rhythm in music could be linked to biological and evolutionary processes in humans. I have a good friend who is a wonderful musician. He has his Master of Music degree in clarinet performance, and he is musical in every way but one: his rhythm. He can’t play a steady beat, no matter how hard he tries. The process of counting seems intrinsically hard for him, in a way that is much more extreme than my own case of discrepancy between what I thought I played, and how it actually sounded. This leads me to believe that there is something biologically different about my friend, and this makes the steady pulse aspect of music very difficult for him. For my friend, his own perception of a steady pulse is very different from that of most other musicians.
Time in music, or even time perception in music, is a wonderful tool for expression. When “beat events” do not match up with the underlying pulse, a listener gets the impression that time is speeding up or slowing down. In a largo movement, such as in a Mahler symphony, time can seem to be suspended; nothing moves. In a vivace movement, such as in the overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, time can seem like it’s flying by at an unreal pace. Music is, in essence, a means of manipulating the perception of time.

1 comment:

Myrtle D. Millares said...

Keeping a steady beat is also the object of many practice sessions for me. Keeping tricky rhythmic patterns within the framework of a steady beat/pulse gets even more challenging. Though it may simply be caused by adrenaline, I also tend to speed up as I continue to play, particularly when the piece is already marked at a fast tempo.

I suppose that if speaking is comparable to playing music, it makes sense that as a passage excites us, the tempo increases, just as speech tends to get faster with excitement. Perhaps it is the contradiction between our feeling for the piece and the way it is restricted by prescriptions of tempo that creates tension in a piece.

I'm currently taking piano pedagogy courses in which we encourage children to move to a steady pulse as they sing the tunes they will learn on the piano. After an exercise like this, students do seem to be able to play at a steady speed. I wonder if part of the reason classical musicians might find it hard to keep the same speed throughout a piece is because of a lack of full-body engagement in the rhythm and pulse. In particular, the spaces between the beats can seem like an eternity, but filling out this space with an arm movement, for example, might help us maintain the right rhythm and keep a steady tempo.