The Elements of Music: 2 of 7, Rhythm

Dirty Dancing is the first pop reference that came to mind when I tried to think of one concerning rhythm.  Remember when Patrick Swayze takes Jennifer Gray’s hand and puts it on his chest, “ka-KONG, ka-KONG?”    In order to teach her how to dance he has to teach her how to feel rhythm, or the overarching (perhaps underarching?) metrical structure of music.

Over the past six weeks, I’ve realized that rhythm is one of my primary struggles with the music I’m playing on the violin.  I have three Bach minuets, for example.  A minuet is a dance, and it’s in 3/4 time.  Teacher tells me you can think of the first beat of the measure of three beats as one that gets a little more emphasis – on the violin we can do this by making it a note played on a down-bow, for example.

Importantly, the time signature is not the rhythm.  It’s one indicator of the rhythm of music.  Like many things, rhythm starts to get pretty complicated pretty quickly.  I don’t think I’m out on a limb too far to suggest that rhythm is one of the most important things people have to be able to appreciate and feel in order to be successful musicians.  Very little is more at the heart of a piece of music than its rhythmic structure.

I think one way to think about rhythms is to consider popular types of dances – most of the ones we can think of are based on rhythmic structures – I mentioned minuets, but waltzes are another – samba, salsa, tango , meringue – Latin rhythms for dance are especially well-known.  If you look up any of these words you will see that they’re actually defined based on specific beat patterns.

Pedro Batista, writing on an old geocities site, illustrates the samba by diagramming out duration frequencies of a basic four beat pattern – he put a bunch of music through mechanical analytical processes in order to do so.  A sad sap like me sees this four equal beats in a row pattern and thinks, “What’s so special about that?”  But to make it a samba, you have to be more imaginative.  After all his technical analyses that clearly demonstrate he knows what he’s talking about from an empirical perspective, Batista lays out what samba really means for those four beats, “here’s how I describe the flawless samba groove technique:

  • First stroke doesn’t have to be strong. It’s already the strongest moment. Just make it as strong as the push you want to give the music.
  • On the second and third strokes, let it die smoothly, slowing down but still rolling.
  • The fourth stroke make it strong, rising the drive back up, and keep it ahead of time (so don’t wait for just the ‘right’ time).”

In other words, you can’t think your way to a samba, you have to feel your way to a samba.  You can put a piece of music through a rigorous mechanical analysis to prove that it IS a samba, but in order to create one you have to feel it.  That’s the essence of rhythm.

I think rhythm is going to continue to be one of my biggest struggles for some time to come.

Thanks for reading.


One comment

  1. […] Gavotte is a dance, in split or 4/4 time.  Recall from my post on rhythm that most dances are based on a rhythmic pattern.  Wikipedia offers this one for a […]

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