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Nov 14 / Greg

Elements (Components) Of Music

Rhythm is the single most important aspect of music, full stop. Without rhythm, there is no music.

I am not going into note and rest values, time signature explanations and the usual basics of what we call rhythm. There are countless attempts to explain and illustrate this on the internet and in books as it is. In music, the concept of rhythm is the most difficult concept of all to explain. As with many musical quantities, a person is either rhythmic on not. By this I mean some are naturally rhythmically gifted and others are not. However, most people can learn rhythmic principles and be trained in them to some extent. Try asking a good dancer to explain rhythm; try asking a gifted musician. Chances are they will not be able to adequately explain and illustrate what comes rhythmically naturally to them.

So, what is rhythm? My view on this in a musical context is that rhythm is ‘the interaction of time values against a measured and repeated background pulse’. By time values I mean notes and rests. By pulse I mean a systematic and repeated reference – the bar line as a pulse indicator, or any regular repeating indicator, the most physically obvious being a metronome.

Rhythm is often seen to be the notes on the page, however, in practice, rhythm has a number of levels and it is the combination of these levels that gives rhythm its true nature, subtlety and complexity.

A simple example of this can be seen in Mozart’s Sonata K 545 for piano where the basic beat value or measure is the quarter-note or crotchet.

Music Rhythm Image 1Click Image To Enlarge

The note values change from sixteenths to eighths to fourths while the beat value remains constant. This often results in a disruption of awareness of the beat speed which in turn has the player either speeding or slowing the ‘counting rate’ of the beats. Regardless of the note rate, the overall pulse rate in the background is unchanged. Practice in counting the beat or pulse rate and matching the changing note rate to it is essential if the passage is to be accurately realised.

As an example of the layering of rhythm consider the following extracts from the middle ‘dance’ section of Franz Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 Nr. 2 for piano. Here, only the treble part is presented as this is where the layering is obvious.

The time signature is 3/4 and the usual counting would be:

Music Rhythm Image 2Click Image To Enlarge

However, if the section is counted ‘one to the bar’ (one bar equal to one beat), the rhythmic ‘swing’ of the dance is much more evident. This is a deeper or more subtle rhythmic layer and every group of 4 bars is one phrase.

Music Rhythm Image 3Click Image To Enlarge

If these 4-bar groups are divided into 2-bar sub-groups, a deeper rhythmic layer is then discerned.

Music Rhythm Image 4Click Image To Enlarge

The phrasing regularity of this section is such that each 4-bar group can be a rhythmic group of its own. This adds yet a deeper or more background rhythmic layer.

Music Rhythm Image 5Click Image To Enlarge

The issue of rhythm is much more than dividing beat notes into smaller values or combining them into larger values. Not all pieces are as rhythmically regular as the above examples but when one considers that the great bulk of music can be subdivided into 2, 4 and 8 bar phrases or sub-groups it is then easier to appreciate the multi-layered nature of rhythm.

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