Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fascinating Rhythm

Source: Sacks, Oliver. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Revised and Expanded). Toronto: Vintage Canada.


Chapter 19 - Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement

Musicophilia is a compilation of stories that deal with various topics relating to music and the brain. It was put together by Oliver Sacks, a practicing physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Centre. The stories are told with a balance of intellect and emotion, and the book is as entertaining to read as it is interesting.

Chapter 19 is entitled Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement. The chapter begins with Mr. Sacks recounting a climbing accident he had on a mountain in Norway, in which he injured his leg so badly that he could not use it to make his way back down the mountain. He decided to ‘row’ himself down to safety, similar to the way paraplegics use a wheelchair. At first he found the motion difficult and exhausting, but eventually he got into a rhythm that he mentally accompanied with a song. Each rowing motion he made synchronized with the beat of the music in his mind. He felt this musical mental aid made it much easier for him to row down the mountain. Mr. Sacks also used music to help him rehabilitate his leg in the hospital afterwards, and soon after his recovery he began using music to help another patient rehabilitate her paralyzed left leg, with much success.

Several researchers have studied the relationship between the auditory and motor systems of the human brain, and there seems to be a strong link between the two systems. This suggests that music and rhythm can be used to help people coordinate body and brain functions. Examples include helping people regain motor control lost through injury or disease, helping people carry out complex chains of actions made difficult by brain damage or disease (like getting dressed), and assisting in the mental processing and storage of information. Athletes have often used music and rhythm to regulate and refine their movements and help them push their bodies to new heights of athletic achievement. For example, swimmers often coordinate their leg kicks in groups of three, in a pattern similar to a waltz rhythm (strong kick on one, weaker kicks on two and three).

It seems that humans also have a tendency to impose rhythmic groupings onto sounds (musical or otherwise) that are identical and occur at constant intervals. Mr. Sacks gives the example of a clock making the sound ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’. Humans might group these ticks into pairs, and the rhythm of the clock will then sound like ‘tick-tock-tick-tock’ to a human, when in actuality the ticking sounds are all equal. Interestingly, the way we group sounds varies greatly from culture to culture, which suggests that there may be a connection between musical rhythm and speech. There is a definite link between the two, with speech having its own sort of irregular rhythmic pattern. Researchers have often questioned which came first – music or speech? The question has been hotly debated and no one conclusion has been widely agreed upon.

The chapter closes with a discussion of the binding power of music and rhythm. For centuries, and across all cultures, music has functioned to bring people together, and rhythm plays a huge part in this process. One needs only to go to a rock concert and witness a crowd jumping (pulsating) up and down in time with the music to see how music can bind people together and form community. It may be that when a group of people hear a rhythm, each person internalizes it identically, creating a sort of shared experience and encouraging mimicry. In the brain, different perceptions are bound together and unified by the synchronized firing of nerve cells in different parts of the brain. Perhaps this is analogous to the use of music and rhythm to bind together communities of people.


One of the reasons that rhythmic cognition is very fascinating to me is because rhythm is present in so many musics of the world, and yet in some ways it differs so much from culture to culture. It seems that each culture’s music has its own distinct rhythmic flavour. As a classical musician, my coaches spent a lot of time teaching me about Viennese ‘schwung’, a type of rhythmic momentum that is characteristic of composers like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. In the Second Viennese school of composition, it is not enough to simply play a ¾ meter in time, the pulse must have schwung. (if you asked me to put into words what this schwung is, I couldn’t do it!) I learned this type of rhythmic quality simply by listening to my mentors demonstrate it. It was only when I could imitate this particular momentum in my playing that people began to tell me I was playing in a true Second Viennese style.

I also studied a piece by Astor Piazzolla, an Argentinean composer famous for developing a style called neuvo tango. It was a short quartet, around seven minutes long, and seemed relatively straightforward. However when my group tried to play it, it just didn't sound right. We couldn't put our finger on what was wrong, but we knew that something was off. We eventually came to the conclusion that it was our rhythm. Although we all have multiple degrees in music performance and have spent the majority of our lives working on our instruments, the highly stylized rhythms of nuevo tango were simply a foreign language to us. We could play in time and play all the correct rhythms perfectly well, but it was as if we had a musical 'accent' similar to a language accent. Our rhythmic style just didn't sound authentic. I wonder if this has to do with the possible connection between the different languages of cultures and the qualities of their musical rhythm. All the practice on Viennese schwung did me no good when I tried to feel the groove of a good Argentinean tango.

1 comment:

Renée Barabash said...

I agree completely with your statement: "rhythm is present in so many musics of the world, and yet in some ways it differs so much from culture to culture." Each culture has its own uses for rhythm as well; for instance, I remember attending Buddhist ceremonies as a child and being lulled by the use of rhythm to accent the chants. Rhythm served the purpose of punctuating the ends of large sections of chants, it also helped to unite the monks and the people participating in the ceremony.

Rhythm can also be a difficult thing to teach, beyond the basic concepts of keeping time. Trying to teach a young student about Schwung is a huge challenge, but reading about how Dr. Sacks combined the rowing motion and the rhythm of a song has inspired me to brainstorm more interactive ways to teach the distinct characteristics of rhythms of different cultures.