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Chapter 4 Rhythm in Music


There is something about music that delights the mind. In all reasonableness, one could not have imagined that such a pleasure as this would exist. Music is a divine gift. “Without music,” declared Friedrich Nietzsche, “ life would be a mistake.” Psychology Today once did a survey on the types of experiences which gave people the most “thrills”. With 96 percent of the respondents citing its pleasures, music topped the list. A beautiful melody was judged to be emotionally the most satisfying thing that human life has to offer. Every society on earth has music and dance. “At the root of all power and motion, at the burning center of existence itself, there is music and rhythm, the play of patterned frequencies against the matrix of time,” journalist and author George Leonard has written. “Before we make music, music makes us. The blessed gift of hearing serves as a channel through which we can be reminded of our deepest origins. For music is a reflection in sound of the world’s structure, making explicit the rhythmic quality in all things.”

Each lives with the rhythm of his own heart beat and of the lungs continually breathing in and out. Human speech has rhythms of stressed and unstressed syllables. Song weds rhythmic speech to the pulsating sounds of music. Musical rhythms are emblematic of other kinds of beautiful experiences, connecting intelligence to the deeper mysteries of life. Our hearts swell when we hear these delicate, stirring sounds. In a unique way, they remind us of things that are precious to our souls. On every level of our being we vibrate. The human brain pulses at a rate of approximately forty cycles per second during active concentration, dropping down to less than one cycle per second in deep sleep. The sense organs are rhythm transformers that interpret incoming energy waves. We pick up rhythmic messages through the vibrations with which we are in tune. Much of this experience takes place below the level of consciousness. Rhythm becomes a matter of personal interest when it engages our feelings and thoughts at the conscious level. Here it claims an area of experience separate from rational awareness.

Rhythmic sensations are with us at an early age. While still in the womb, the human fetus becomes aware of the mother’s heart beat. (A new-born baby can be made to become quiet and fall asleep by playing a tape with this sound.) At birth, babies commence a lifelong rhythm of breathing. Their daily routine is arranged in cycles of waking activity and sleep. The times of feeding and evacuation of wastes, of playfulness followed by restless irritation, of parental visits and lying alone in the crib, follow one another in recurring patterns of infantile experience. When a parent talks to the child, bodily gestures and tone of voice will be understood sooner than the meaning of words. Babies quickly distinguish between different voices. Their ability to speak, even in baby words, takes years. One might say, then, that human intelligence itself begins with the recognition of rhythmic patterns. Articulate conceptions of form come later.

Rhythmic intelligence may extend to other living creatures. Wolves howl in their high-pitched voices. Sparrows chirp and owls hoot. Crickets make music by rubbing their legs together. Grasshoppers produce a characteristic mating sound developed perhaps 250 million years ago by rubbing their legs and wings together. The male chestnut-sided warbler has at least two kinds of songs, serving different functions. The primary song, intended to attract females, will be sung often during the early mating season. Once the birds have mated, the males switch to secondary songs resembling growls which are intended to discourage other males from entering their territory. In contrast with songbirds’ short and repetitive tunes, the more intelligent whale in the ocean is said to perform “raga-like compositions of extraordinary length and complexity lasting anywhere from six to thirty minutes.”

Greek philosophy looks at the world from a rational perspective, aiming to produce knowledge that helps society to function in various ways. Such disciplines as natural science, mathematics, engineering, and the law exemplify the types of activity governed by reason. There is, however, another sphere of activity which eludes reason. Imagine the boisterous atmosphere in a sports bar. The liquor flows, raunchy jokes are told, customers flirt with the waitresses, music plays in a juke box, and a cheer goes up from those gathered around a large-screen television as the home team scores. From a rational perspective, rhythmic experiences such as this belong to that other area of life which is irrational and wild but also personally exciting. The phrase, “wine, women, and song” - updated lately to “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” - embraces some elements of this culture. Passionate love, mind-altering chemicals, and, above all, music are the eternal staples of its lifestyle. This side of life represents the “becoming” rather than “being”, the mood swings between extreme elation and depression, the pleasure-centered values - in short, all that Plato despised.

Historians distinguish between the “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” traditions in the classical Greek and Roman culture. Apollonian culture included the arts and sciences attributed to the Olympian god Apollo. Although he was god of music, Apollo was also responsible for inventions of higher civilization in such areas as medicine, philosophy, law, and agriculture. Apollonian culture represents, then, the rational principle in civilized life. Opposed to this principle were the subterranean cultural practices associated with the worship of the Thracian god Dionysus, who was the god of wine and fertility. His cultic ceremonies featured drunken orgies, dancing to the point of ecstatic frenzy, and grotesque rituals in which the worshipers tore living animals apart and drank their blood. The Roman successor god, Bacchus, aroused such spectacles of public drunkenness and licentiousness that the Roman government in 186 B.C. outlawed the Bacchanalian ceremonies. However, their cultic tradition has lived on in the lives of poets, artists, and musicians such as the English or German Romantic poets of the early 19th century or the “flower children” who trekked to San Francisco in the late 1960s. It will always have a following among the young.

Rhythmic culture extends to the arts of sociability. The enjoyment of humor involves a certain rhythm. To make a person laugh makes him literally vibrate. The humorous message, or joke, reaches its climax when the listener detects an incongruity in the flow of rational expression. Then the mood changes abruptly from serious communication to playfulness. Rhythm may also enter into the visual arts. Medieval Chinese paintings drawn with brush and ink create fragile vistas of mountainous landscapes or writhing animals following a Taoist concept, ch’i-yun, which is translated “spirit resonance”. The rhythmic spirit of the object was supposed to guide the artist’s hands during creation. Traditionally, agricultural workers have sung songs while performing back-breaking labor. The French-Canadian voyageurs of the 17th and 18th centuries who transported animal furs in large canoes across North American waterways needed physical strength and endurance. It is reported that “because they sang to while away the hours of paddling, their voices were almost as important as their biceps, and their singing voices were considered when they were chosen for the jobs.”

Rhythm in popular culture

This aspect of life is emphasized in the age of popular culture. The contemporary media of electronic recording and broadcasting allow images of sight and sound to be conveyed to audiences in full sensuous detail. Tape recordings preserve the sound of a human voice or musical instrument as it was originally heard. Radio delivers this sound to a large and scattered audience. Motion pictures and video recordings permit both visual and auditory images to be captured in their media. Television is a powerful tool for disseminating images of sight and sound. Such devices record images moving through time, either as sound waves or as a succession of visual pictures that mimic motion. Unlike print, they communicate sensuous images rather than words. The new media of communication exhibit rhythm in its various forms. Persons who regularly produce high-quality rhythms are much in demand in this culture.

Music is the dominant content for radio. “Disk jockeys” who announce and play the musical selections are the dominant radio personality. Their role has been expanded from presenting music to include sports talk and idle chit-chat in formats that appeal to morning commuters; they offer “glorified companionship” as one morning-show host has called it. The listening audiences are hungry not only for music but for glimpses of human personality. In the old days, radio was a favorite medium for direct sports broadcasting, newscasts, comedy, and dramatic works in serial form. Although some of these programs have continued, they are eclipsed by their counterparts in television, which adds visual images to the sound.

Newscasts, broadcasts of athletic contests, and dramatic performances, especially sitcoms, are the major categories of television programming. Game shows, reality-based journalism, late-night talk shows, afternoon “soap operas” and relationship-focused talk shows that appeal mostly to women are some other popular types. Variety shows such as Ed Sullivan’s, which presented musical acts, have faded. The common denominator of radio and television shows, as well as phonographs and motion pictures before them, is that they exhibit rhythm in its various forms. They feature individual performers who can deliver rhythm. This rhythm attaches to the personal qualities of the performer, the sensuous appearances of face and voice, as well as of the performer’s habits of mind. Program hosts with “the gift of gab” also convey rhythmic personality.

The shift to electronically produced entertainment has taken the attention off printed texts and stripped their authors of public acclaim. While there may be modern-day Shakespeares among the Hollywood screenwriters and writers of television scripts, they receive little recognition. Instead, the actors and actresses who memorize and perform the scripts become the center of attention. The same is true of musical composers and the persons who perform their music. If the music is a composition for instruments, the composer may still be recognized; but if the music is written for the human voice, then the singer rather than the songwriter enjoys the starring role. Electronic recording and broadcasting are such powerful media for delivering sensuous images that these images outshine creative design. The human performer who stands in front of the camera is the image that audiences want. Understandably, men and women who possess good looks and have a certain personal magnetism gravitate to the top of this culture at the expense of brainy individuals with mere creative vision.

Because a “star” actor, singer, athlete, or other performer is a unique personal commodity on the market, the price which this person is able to command for his or her performance can reach astronomical levels. Audiences accustomed to the particular personalities of their favorite performers will accept no substitute. Therefore, by law of supply and demand, the price rises where demand so greatly exceeds supply. Not only do well-known performers receive huge sums of money for exercising their entertainment skills; they, as celebrities, are also paid for “celebrity endorsements” of products. Michael Jordan, the basketball star, has received millions of dollars for endorsing Nike sports shoes, a product related to his sport but not to Jordan’s basketball abilities per se.

This situation creates an anomaly in that human performers exercising non-technical and often physical skills are more generously compensated than more cerebral types, including, perhaps, the person who invented the electronic equipment that made it possible for the performer’s image to be magnified. Even though that person’s contribution was also unique, he or she created a patentable design rather than a personal rhythm. That design was form. It was a scheme which, once articulated and presented as technological blueprint, could be replicated many times. Therefore, it was possible to increase supply of the product created from the blueprint to meet any level of demand and the price would come down. From an economic standpoint, the difference between rhythm and form is that the supply of personality-based rhythms is limited by their uniqueness while form is its own means of increasing supply.

Whether rhythm can be produced at will

Because rhythm is so precious, everyone wants it. There is an interest in discovering the “secret” of producing rhythm so that a person can create this at will. In other words, people want to be able to reduce rhythm to certain principles of knowledge - to “form”, if you will. It may therefore be possible to approach this subject as the Greek philosophers would and ask: “What is rhythm? What is its definition?” The New Century dictionary defines rhythm as: “movement or procedure with uniform recurrence of a beat, accent, or the like; in general, procedure marked by the regular recurrence of particular elements, phrases, etc.; specifically, in music, the structure of a composition with reference to the distribution of its successive beats or accents, as distinguished from melody and harmony.” From these words one may surmise that rhythm is a creation of sound in which certain tonal sounds, or beats, occur at regular intervals over a period of time. Rhythm is like one’s own heart beats. The beats are aesthetically pleasing and controlled.

We will use the term, “rhythm”, in a different way. Rhythm is the beauty in beautiful music or, by extension, the beauty of any experience in which an intelligent expression, like music, is pleasingly presented over a period of time. Rhythm is, therefore, not the beauty in a painting or a statue which is perceived in a single moment but an arrangement in time. Its events are arranged on a temporal continuum. Besides music and dance, rhythmic expressions appear in personal conversations, sporting contests, dramatic works, storytelling, and most kinds of productions for radio and television shows. As for a definition to cover all these situations, that might be difficult. Paraphrasing Louis Armstrong’s statement about jazz, the philosopher would say: “You will know it when you see (or hear) it. And, if you know, you don’t have to ask.” Each person knows what he or she thinks is beautiful or personally moving. Rhythm is what moves an individual personally, both in an emotional and intellectual way. Being personal, rhythm is not easily put into a general form. So its definition will have to be left on that note.

However, we would be remiss to leave readers of this book, expecting to learn about rhythm, with the conclusion that rhythm is simply what is in their own minds. (We are not like some of those other hucksters who let the client do the talking and furnish no thoughts of their own.) So, for a general discussion of rhythm, the best place to start might be to discuss the qualities in music. The elements of music are clear and specific relative to other kinds of rhythmic phenomena. In theory, rhythmic music has a design which, known philosophically, could become a general pattern for creating more of the same. The issue might be restated in this way: Can beautiful music be written from a formula? Or, is there a computer program which can write this kind of music? If human composers know how to write such music, then surely someone ought to be able to ask them how they did it and, using that information, build a machine to do it better.

Philosophy provides an example of how musical principles can become knowledge. One of the earliest and most successful attempts to explain music’s appeal was made by Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. The Pythagoreans discovered that harmony in music derives from a simple numerical relationship between the lengths of vibrating strings in a stringed instrument. For example, the ratio of the octave is 2 to 1.The ratio of the fifth is 3 to 2. Notes whose vibrating strings are related in length by small integral numbers can be put together harmoniously in a chord. That relationship was discovered by observing several such chords. Knowing it, one may presumably extend the pattern to other integral numbers, measure the length of strings, and create harmonies which were previously unknown. Such are the uses of formulae. But harmonious chords are not the same thing as rhythmic music. Rhythm, as a narrowly defined musical element, pertains to the timed sequence of beats. Harmony is a sound created when several different notes are struck simultaneously. What we are looking for is a broader definition of beautiful music that encompasses all its elements.

Each can approach this question by identifying specific cases of the object in question and then proposing a general pattern which fits all the cases but none which do not fit. In other words, each person could pick some passages from his or her favorite music and try to see what makes the music beautiful. There are, of course, many different kinds of music on the contemporary scene: classical, semi-classical, jazz, folk music, Country Western, rock ‘n roll, Gospel songs, hymns, etc. And, within classical or, say,19th Century German orchestral music, there is music written by many different composers who would each be considered to have a unique style. The type of music may influence its admirers’ perception of beauty, and musical tastes are different. Even so, each person knows what he or she likes in music. Having identified some favorite musical compositions, that person could listen closely to the music and decide where and how it is beautiful. Are there places in the music that have special appeal? If so, what elements are present? If one has a clear perception of beauty in several different pieces of music, it might then be possible to decide what the selections have in common. One could try to find a pattern in them and so formulate an idea of what beautiful music in general is, or even what rhythm is in general.

One can question this type of exercise. We are trying to capture the beauty of music in a formula, or trying to define rhythm’s essential ingredient as if it were a chemical element or strain of virus. The effervescent element of rhythmic music may not be able to be placed under an analytical microscope any more than one could analyze humor, for instance, and say why a particular joke was funny. The comic sense - the part which delivers its emotional kick - is hard to explain even though everyone knows when something is funny. Likewise, the rhythm of music touches the human spirit in mysterious though evident ways. The main thing is to recognize and appreciate rhythm, not explain it.

Rhythmic beauty may lie beyond generalized knowledge. While Plato was interested in musical studies, he ridiculed the Pythagoreans who, seeking truths concerning the nature of harmony, “measure audible concords and sound against one another, expending much useless labor ... they talk of something they call minims and, laying their ears alongside, as if trying to catch a voice from next door, some affirm that they can hear a note in between and that this is the least interval and the unit of measurement, while others insist that the notes now render identical sounds, both preferring their ears to their minds ... The numbers they seek are found in these heard concords, but they do not ascend to generalized problems and the consideration which numbers are inherently concordant and which not and why in each case.”

In the Philebus, Plato pointed out that there were two kinds of arts and crafts, distinguished by their use or nonuse of generalized knowledge. The “superior types of knowledge”, he suggested, were found in those arts which involved “numbering, measuring, and weighing” according to exact standards. For instance, the arts of carpentry and building construction required that kind of knowledge. Music was an example of the other art. Its knowledge depended on “guesswork and the exercise of your senses on a basis of experience and rule of thumb, involving the use of that ability to make luck shots which is commonly accorded the title of art or craft, when it has consolidated its position by dint of industrious practice.” Plato therefore proposed to “divide the arts and crafts so called into two classes, those akin to music in their activities and those akin to carpentry, the two classes being marked by a lesser and a greater degree of exactness respectively.”

The various arts involving rhythm fell into this second category. Plato mistrusted music-making; he saw this as a potentially subversive influence in society. The guardians of the state, he warned, should be “watchful against innovations in music ... for the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling the most fundamental political and social conventions.” (This statement anticipated by 2,400 years statements made during the crackdown on rock ‘n roll music in the Soviet Union. The Kremlin’s second highest official, Yegor Ligachev, in 1987 warned against the infiltration of “mass bourgeois culture” which he said had incited rebelliousness among teenagers.) Plato’s main objection to music, though, was its failure to ascent to the level of generality. The practitioner of music, he wrote, “adjusts its concords not by measurement by lucky shots of a practiced finger.” That uncertainty was found “in the whole of music, flute playing and lyre playing alike, for this latter hunts for the proper length of each string as it gives its note, making a shot for the note, and attaining a most unreliable result.”

The “practiced finger” of a skilled musician is developed over a long period of training. Even then, it cannot be guaranteed that the performance will go well. (That is what makes live performances of rhythm so exciting when they do go well.) Yet, in theory, music does have an ideal form. Plato observed that, in the realm of heard objects, “audible sounds which are smooth and clear, and deliver a single series of pure notes, are beautiful not relative to something else, but in themselves.” Elsewhere, he suggested that “the art of music was to create harmony by resolving the discord between the treble and the bass ... as (also) we produce rhythm by resolving the difference between fast and slow.” Then Plato made a startling admission: “But when we come to the application of rhythm and harmony to human activities - as for instance the composition of a song, or the instruction of others in the correct performance of airs and measures which have already been composed - then, gentlemen, we meet with difficulties which call for expert handling.”

Plato seems to be returning to the idea of the golden mean when he wrote that rhythm resolves “the difference between fast and slow”, and harmony “the discord between the treble and bass”. If it were a matter of finding the mean, one would also think that rhythmic music fell somewhere between overly complex, noise-like sounds, on one extreme, and boringly simple tonal presentations, on the other. The steady pitch of a tuning fork or even Plato’s “single series of pure notes” would illustrate the latter extreme. For, it seems that good music steers a middle course between being excessively and insufficiently complex. It has just enough complexity to challenge the listener’s musical imagination but not enough to produce bewilderment as atonal symphonies sometimes do.

Even if generalities can describe beautiful music, they may not be able to supplant the process of artistic creation. The question is whether the process of composing high-quality music springs mysteriously from the mind and heart of a “genius” composer or it can be reduced to a method? Rousseau claimed that his friend, John Philippe Rameau, had invented such a method of composing music. Yet, he is one of the lesser-known composers of that age. Intuitively, one feels that no simple formula or principle can serve as a “blueprint” for this creative activity. Music contains such a blend of sequentially complex elements that only an intelligence approaching man’s in its various capabilities could compose anything of worth. To compose music by computer might be an option in today’s world. Computers can hold various patterns in memory, operate sequentially, and do many things.

Most studio recording today is done with computers. They work with electronic synthesizers to coordinate and modify sounds. A single composer-performer-technician working with a computer can produce recordings which once would have required a full crew of musicians. Synthesizers can produce the sound of any known musical instrument or create wholly artificial sounds. They can draw upon sounds that have been digitally sampled and stored, juxtapose complex rhythms, and vary the speed. Musical performances are no longer limited by human intelligence or manual dexterity. What computers cannot yet do - at least, not to my knowledge - is to create automatically new musical compositions whose rhythmic and aesthetic qualities equal those found in world-renowned orchestral masterpieces. Perhaps some day that will be possible. In the meanwhile, we will have to rely on human composers and listen to what they have to say about the creative process.

Aaron Copland’s explanation of music

A 20th Century American composer, Aaron Copland, wrote a book, What to Listen for in Music, which lays bare this process from a composer’s point of view. From this book, one learns that symphonic composition is more like a pregnancy than a mechanical fabrication. “Every composer begins with a musical idea,” Copland wrote. The idea or theme can be a “melody”, or “a melody with an accompaniment”, or “a purely rhythmic idea”, or something else. The composer collects these ideas in a notebook. He studies each closely “for its purely formal beauty ... the way its rises and falls.” He will then try to “find some other ideas that seem to go with the original one”, either by similarity or contrast. The composer will try to connect ideas by an “elongation process” or “so-called bridge material”. In turning ideas into a finished work, the object would be “the welding together of all that material so that it makes a coherent whole ... everything must be in its place.” The junctions should appear smooth and natural rather than contrived.

Every composer has his own way of working, which involve a combination of imaginative thinking and the intellectual labor of constructing a finished work. The energetic Franz Schubert, whom Copland called the “spontaneously inspired (type of) composer”, turned out finished works nearly every day. Beethoven, on the other hand, illustrates the “constructive type” of composer who patiently creates the structure of sounds from ideas in a notebook. Any dedicated composer or songwriter regularly has ideas. “I write songs anywhere - in the back of the car, in hotel rooms, on planes,” said Johnny Cash, the American pop singer, who could not read a note of music. Irving Berlin, likewise musically illiterate, installed a clutch on his piano that allowed him easily to switch keys. When he found the right melody, a secretary would write down the notes. Every type of music has its own conventions or forms which offer guidance to the creative process.

Aaron Copland’s book reviewed the elements that go into music. The four basic elements are: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color. Rhythm is the arrangement of recurring stressed and unstressed beats at regular intervals in time. Melody is the sequence of single notes of varying pitch. Harmony is the simultaneous sounding of two or more different tones in a chord. Tone color pertains to the timber of an instrument or its overtones. The tones or notes are sounds of a certain pitch which can be arranged in a musical scale. The notes can have a certain degree of loudness or intensity. The overall structure of a musical work would also have to be considered in determining its quality. Rhythm, in a broad sense, is, as we said, the overall emotional or aesthetic impact which music has on a person.

In a narrow sense, rhythm is music’s original and most basic element. Copland offers the example of foot beats in a parade: LEFT-right, LEFT-right; or, ONE-two, ONE-two. This would correspond to 2/4th time in music. The rhythm of 3/4th time would be: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. Dancers of the waltz would recognize this. Usually, but not always, the stress is on the first beat of the measure. The scheme of measured music, developed in the 12th Century A.D., allows musical notations to be preserved in writing. Each repeating set of beats is a measure or bar. The notes are situated at the beats. These notes can be, depending on duration: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes, and so on. Whole notes last twice as long as half notes, which last twice as long as quarter notes. The actual duration of each sounded note is relative to that of the whole note. The speed of the rhythm is called its “tempo”. If there are four quarter-notes in a measure, the music is written in four-quarter time (4/4). Three-quarter time (3/4) music would have three quarter-notes per measure.

Not all rhythms have simple, plodding beats. The rhythms can depart from strict meter to meet particular expressive needs. Until medieval times, musical rhythms followed patterns of speech. The patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables of words, interrupted by meaningful pauses and modulated to emphasize certain words or thoughts, give speech a distinctly rhythmic quality. Poetry and music, incorporating artfully arranged beats, were born of the same cultural tradition. In primitive cultures, the beating of drums creates a monotonous, nonverbal kind of musical rhythm. These can become quite complicated when several drums are beat at the same time or variations are introduced. Instead of the simple ONE-two, ONE-two, there can be: ONE-two, ONE-two-three/ ONE-two, ONE-two-three; or, perhaps, ONE-two-three, ONE-two, ONE-two-three/ ONE-two-three, ONE-two, ONE-two-three. When several different sets of rhythms are produced at the same time, the music becomes “polyrhythmic”. We are exposed to this in jazz, where the bass consists of a steady, unchanging series of beats as other rhythms float around freely in the other parts. In polyrhythmic piano pieces, the left hand will generally play one set of rhythms and the right hand another.

Melody, the second of Copland’s elements, is a series of notes carrying the musical theme. Here we assume rhythm as part of the background structure. Melody is the most artistic element in music; it consists of notes moving up and down to various tonal positions in an engaging way. Melodies are the unique quality in songs. We listen for the melodic pattern as it weaves, thread-like, through a musical work. Unlike rhythm, melody features variations of tone. Tones are the distinctly pitched sounds of notes that are produced by musical instruments vibrating at particular frequencies - for instance, “middle C”. They are arranged in graded sets called scales. In the “chromatic” scale of contemporary western music, there are twelve evenly distributed tones within an octave. However, only seven of these, comprising the “diatonic scale”, are commonly used. The progression of notes begins at a particular tone and then rises along the scale at intervals identified by the musical exercise: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. That range of notes would be a complete octave. The first note - “do” - would set the key for the music, depending on which tone it hit.

With melody more than rhythm, one can apply aesthetic judgment to a musical composition. There are good melodies and bad ones. “Why a good melody should have the power to move us has thus far defied all analysis,” Copland wrote. Nevertheless, he identified some of the qualities found in good melodies: Such melodies would have “satisfying proportions.” They would give “a sense of completeness and inevitability”. The melodic line would be “long and flowing, with low and high points of interest and a climactic moment which usually came near the end.” Also, it would “tend to move about among a variety of notes, avoiding unnecessary repetitions.” Whether or not such prescriptions help to create good melodies, it is assumed that most people know a good melody when they hear one.

The third musical element, harmony, is one whose excellent qualities are more easily understood. Although harmony also involves a relationship between tones, the tones are sounded simultaneously in a chord rather than sequentially. We know intuitively which tones have a pleasing sound when played together. Particular notes are harmonious with other notes having a particular relation to them in the scale. “Harmonic theory,” wrote Copland, “is based on the assumption that all chords are built upward in a series of intervals of a third.” That means that in the diatonic scale of seven notes, whatever the lowest note is in the chord, the next one will be two notes higher; and the third one, two notes higher than that. In terms of the musical scale, it would be “ do-mi-sol”. Although a chord consists of at least three such notes, it can be expanded to four, five, six, or even seven notes. Most choral music is written in four-part harmony.

Tone color is the fourth of Copland’s four elements. This refers to the “quality of sound produced by a particular medium of musical tone production.” For example, a tuba sounds different than a trumpet or clarinet. Each type of orchestral instrument has its own quality of sound which makes the notes sound different than the same notes produced by other instruments. The differences have to do with harmonic overtones and other sonic impurities associated with the instrument. In addition, the instruments have different volumes, limits of tonal range, and so forth. The composer of orchestral music must decide which instrument to put with each part in the score to produce the intended effect. There are four basic types of orchestral instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Within each category are a number of different instruments, each having its own “color”. The choice of instruments will have an impact on the quality of the overall sound produced.

In addition to the above-mentioned elements, one should consider the structure of music and its verbal accompaniment. Regarding structure, Copland wrote that “whatever form the composer chooses to adopt ... the form must have what in my student days we used to call la grande ligne (the long line) ... Every good piece of music must give us a sense of flow - a sense of continuity from first note to last.” The sense of flow in musical compositions creates a feeling that the expressions were meant to be written as they were. All the parts fall naturally into place. Good structure imparts a sense of “inevitable direction”, giving the listener “a satisfying feeling of coherence born of the psychological necessity of the musical ideas with which the composer began.”

Related to this is the idea that musical compositions should have balance. Balance is achieved through repetition of themes. The themes can be repeated exactly or they can be repeated in variations. Repetition, giving music its “spinal structure”, is the principal form of most musical arrangements. Typically, melody becomes the focus of the repetitious exercise. It is passed around the orchestra from one section to another, undergoing many variations. The listener’s task is to pay attention to the melody at all times and never lose track of its progress. The principle of repetition applies to all levels of musical construction including the notes themselves, the rhythm of beats, movements, sections and subsections, and the work as a whole. The various repeating elements reinforce each other. “Musical form,” wrote Copland, “resembles a series of wheels within wheels in which the formation of the smallest wheel is remarkably similar to that of the largest one.”

Music’s personal appeal

The lyrics of a song can play a part in its rhythmic expression. In the best expressions, the words and sounds go naturally together. While not part of music per se, the verbal element should be considered in the total aesthetic effect which a musical composition has. Words have meanings that are personally associated with a listener. They conjure up different thoughts in different listeners’ minds. That would suggest that the rhythmic power of music, in its fullest sense, may have more to do with creating a private experience than with exhibiting beauty in general. Words and their message become emotionally symbolic of things in a person’s life. If that is true, it may be that some of the other elements in music, having to do with sound qualities, may also stir the hearts and minds of listeners because these listeners are individually ready to be stirred.

Music, then, has these different elements. Each element of orchestral music, as well as other kinds, exhibits many variations. Beautiful music has been written in various modes. What can one say of music in general? One could say overall that music, as opposed to noise, gives a sense of orderliness. The sounds are not running in all directions but have a design. Each part is created with reference to other parts. Each contributes to the pattern of the whole. Yet, within this pattern there is life. There is spirit wanting to fulfill itself. Beautiful music strikes a balance between order and chaos, repetition and novelty, regularity and variation. A completely regular pattern of sounds would be boring. Some irregularity and complexity should be introduced in the music to make it more interesting, but not too much.

I once heard a symphonic conductor say in a radio interview that the metronome was the enemy of rhythm. In his opinion, musical works should be conducted in a way that gives a sense of freedom and spontaneity. Rhythm should not be mechanical because it would not then be human. In order to engage our imagination, the music should have a certain wildness about it, testifying to the spirit within. Aaron Copland’s reference to “la grande ligne” - the long line - captures a sense of that spirit. In rhythms of every sort one finds continuity or the sense of flow. A full-flowing musical work builds upon itself rhythmically. There will not be places where the expression reaches an impasse, runs out of insights, and then dies. Some powerful force of creative imagination pulls the expression along. Good music has a momentum of continuous thought that knows where to head next. “A great symphony,” wrote Copland, “is a man-made Mississippi down which we irresistibly flow from the instant of our leave-taking to a long foreseen destination.”

Rhythm, like beauty, lies in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. The pleasure that one takes from a piece of music largely depends upon the aesthetic aptitude and conditioning of the listener. We can all understand simple rhythms, but they tend to be boring. We experience emotional exhilaration as the rhythm becomes fuller and perceptively more challenging, so long as its perception remains within our grasp. If the rhythm becomes too complex, however, we lose it. So the proper degree of complexity in music depends on the listener. As the right number of pounds for a weight lifter depends on the athlete’s conditioning and strength, so the most satisfying rhythms will be those which tax the listener’s perceptive talents to the right degree. A good rhythm first gets its “hook” into the listener. Once the listener is hooked, he can usually be brought along into more demanding and exciting rhythmic experiences without becoming lost.

Academic studies of music confirm the theory that a given piece of music affects people differently. Diana Deutsch at the University of California, San Diego, has found “huge individual differences in the way people hear musical information”. This may have less to do with the listener’s musical training or degree of sophistication than once believed. Even simple note patterns and melodies tend to be heard in personal ways. This fact does not bode well for modern abstract music. “I think it’s reasonable to say that composing music with pen and paper on the basis of mathematical abstractions, as a series of patterns or problems to be solved, is, if you like, incorrect,” Deutsch said. “The human hearing mechanism cannot process an abstraction.” So we are back to the old-fashioned ways of appreciating music. Music, some say, provides a “psychic ride or journey” promising certain aesthetic “rewards” and fulfilling most “expectations” but also introducing “periodic surprises.”

In the end, there are limits to putting rhythm under a microscope to see what lies there. That is the text-centered approach. The idea of studying texts or musical scores as if they were fragile masterpieces produced by genius is the wrong way to approach rhythm. This makes rhythm difficult when it is, in fact, quite easy. For, there is a certain mood when any creative act becomes a work of genius and nothing can go wrong. The focus should be not upon the work but the creative moment. The worthwhile question to ask is not what exquisite arrangements lie in a completed expression but: How do I put myself into the mood? How do I bring on the state of all-powerful rhythmic creation?

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