What is Rhythm?
Have you ever thought, is rhythm linear or cyclical? Is music conceptualized in a straight line or in a repeating cycle?
Well, let’s start by defining rhythm. Rhythm is the organization of sounds in time. Essentially, as long as there is some intentional ordering of sounds in time, you’ve got something musical. But this begs the question, how are these sounds organized?
If we start with a constant steady beat, that’s already a form of organization. The next most common step is to group these steady beats together, most commonly in groups of 4.
Now you’ve got a repeating cycle of 4 beats. There we go, rhythm is cyclical.
But wait, why is most sheet music written in a linear fashion? We read music, page by page, like reading a book.
To understand this, we need to delve a little into the differences between notation-based and aural music traditions.
Music notation is the process of writing music down, in a format where transmission of information is feasible. Western notation is probably the most dominant and widespread form of notation, but there are many other forms of notation around the world as well. You have cipher notation in much Indonesian and Chinese music, sargam notation in Indian music, and so on (knowing these isn’t important to this discussion).
When a functional system of notation has been developed to such an extent where it starts to be used as a primary tool for composition, as it has in Western classical music, that’s when the music’s rhythm starts to take on a linear nature. Remember that rhythm is the organization of sound in time, and now that you can write out the music clearly on paper, you have the ability to take liberties in changing the meter.
By writing out the music in a linear fashion, you can create complex changes in rhythmic grouping or meter at any point in the music, trusting that the performer will be able to read the music as one reads a book and perform the change in meter accordingly. This is how Western music has evolved into the linear nature that it has today.
On the other hand, many musical cultures around the world do not have as sophisticated a system of notation as Western music. These are called aural traditions. While they often possess some form of notation, they are less sophisticated and mainly used for documentation and communication purposes rather than as a compositional tool.
As such, these musical cultures adopt a cyclical conceptualisation of rhythm, where a constant grouping of beats repeats itself. The music then weaves itself through this constant cycle. The concept of cyclical rhythm is conceptualized as different names in different musical cultures, such as tala in Indian classical music, compas in flamenco, and gongan in Indonesian gamelan.
Now, does this lack of a sophisticated notation system and therefore the absent possibilities of a linear rhythmic conceptualization make aural traditions inferior?
In fact, in many ways aural traditions are far more developed than their notation-based counterparts. This is because music is an aural art form - it’s primary medium of communication is sound. Therefore, there are many intricacies and complexities in sound that simply cannot be accurately represented in written form.
Where Western classical music prides itself in its highly sophisticated and developed notation system, at the same time it is limiting itself to the very limitations placed upon it by that notation system. How accurately can words and graphics communicate performing a piece ‘jubilantly’ or ‘smoothly’? Furthermore, there are some musical concepts that Western notation cannot even try to replicate, such as gamakam in Indian classical music, the precise movement and oscillation of musical pitches.
In aural traditions, these musical intricacies are passed on from generation to generation through the intimate teacher to student relationship. Learners immerse themselves in the music of their teachers and absorb the fine details through constant listening and repetition, rather than through written music.
Is Linear or Cyclical Better?
Therefore, rhythm can be both linear or cyclical, depending on the musical style in question. It is important in this discussion not to value one as better than the other, but rather acknowledge the differences and the benefits and limitations of each conceptualization. In appreciating this diversity of rhythmic conceptualization, we are better poised as musicians to appreciate, understand, and perform these musics.
By Neil Chan