Music for the neck downwards
Keith RichardsCHAPTER AIM: Introducing Rhythm. And our six pieces.
Heart of the Matter
What was the first really important musical thing ever to happen to you? Think about it.
It’s not that bit of music you first fell in love to. And it’s not that first live concert you went to. It’s not even those nursery songs our parents crooned us as babies.
This event goes back before that, in fact so far back, none of us can even remember it. And yet it is undoubtedly our most formative musical experience, for each and every one of us.
It’s the most formative musical event of our lives, and it’s a rhythmic one:
We might have sat silent in our mother’s tummy, but nothing else was. Plenty of rumbling and bodily sluicing, no doubt. But dominating everything: that constant thump of our mother’s heart.
Boom – Boom – It’s an experience that bombards us more than every second – Boom – Boom – night and day, during those first critical months of our development – Boom – Boom – It must have such a fundamental impact on us. Deep down, this is why we intuitively react to rhythm. It means that when we’re born, we already come prepackaged with an innate sense of it.
That sense of rhythm is only confirmed by our own heart, that beat-box inside us that measures out our entire life. Slow beats when we are relaxed, faster when excited or stressed. That is central to how we experience the world. and hence to the music we create.
Our resting heart rate averages 80 or 90 beats per minute. Music at that speed (Andante as a musical tempo) sounds relaxed to us. Think The Beatles Yesterday at just over 90 beats per minute.
Play music at the pace of a heart beating 50% faster (an Allegro tempo) and it sounds excited. Think I Wanna Hold your Hand at 140 bpm.
Our heart-rate tells us at the most basic level how to interpret the music we hear. Musical rhythm and our own bodies are inextricably linked.
This chapter, I’m going to use our six pieces of music that make up this course to introduce six aspects of Rhythm.
1. Rhythm effects us instinctively
A bit of our Gershwin piece
No coincidence, the word ‘measure‘ is used in music to signify the pulse or beat of a piece. It is the sub-structure of music, upon which the next edifices (Melody and then Harmony) are constructed. It is primordial, the fundamental component of making sound into music.
Rhythm is to music what punctuation is to language: it gives it shape, structure, and definition. It supplies the rules, the grammar, from which music is made.
Stripped to its bones, Rhythm is the skeleton beneath music’s skin.
The piece comes from the final of our six pieces on this course, the 2nd movement of the 8th string quartet by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. So much of the raw effect of the music comes from its use of rhythm.
The section of the piece is described by some as an actual dance of death.
We’ll get into all that later on the course. For the moment let’s just content ourselves with the fact the power of this music is rhythmic. This also is music for the neck downwards. It’s as true for Shostakovich as the Rolling Stones.
5. Music always has a beat
Our Beethoven piece
All music has a beat. It has to, or it can’t be music.
Even music like this, which comes from the Beethoven piece (his 9th symphony, the final movement) we’ll be using on this course. The music feels timeless, like it is hanging in space, totally unattached to the earthly world of rhythm.
And yet it still obeys a pulse. It’s just a very slow one! There’s always a beat to music, there has to be. You can take instruments out of music, one by one. You can lose the harmonies. You can even get rid of the melodies.
But you can never remove rhythm.
Another bit of our Beethoven piece
The Beethoven piece is long (17 mins), by far the longest on this course. It has to employ a variety of rhythms to even function at that length. Otherwise it would become tedious to listen to.
This section here has a much clearer rhythmic definition. A more obvious beat.
Rhythm is the first dimension of music, the basic repetitive building blocks from which a composer organises sound. Next come Melody, and finally Harmony, but for our very first dimension, we need to consider the rhythmic qualities of a piece of music.
That’s why, after ‘instruments’, there’s a rhythm section on each piece in the main part of this course. Musically, its the place to begin.
6. Rhythm and some Basics
Our Mozart piece
Before a composer writes a note of music, they have to write a time signature. And that’s a decision that will effect the resulting music in its most basic forms. So this is important. But it’s also rather basic.
Most introductions to Rhythm that I’ve seen start right out with Time Signatures, and then get on to Tempos, who knows notation.
That’s all well and good, I’m just not sure that’s the best way to understand music. Time Signatures, Tempos, Notation: these are all whats, not a why. A piece is 3/4 time, or 6/8…these are labels we use to describe music, labels we need to use very often. But these are nonetheless essentially just labels. They can even blind us from some of the musical complexity in actual operation.
Take this piece by Mozart playing now, the final movement of his final symphony. It is written in what we call 4/4 time, from beginning to end. Four beats to the bar, every bar. That’s our rhythmic structure for this piece, as communicated by the time signature. An apparently uniform, and unchanging constant, from start to finish.
But does that actually tell you anything about the pulse of the music itself?
This music is alive with rhythm. It’s cascading everywhere, in many forms. Whatever section of this clip is playing now, I’ll guarantee something fascinating is going on, rhythmically. Different instruments taking contrasting rhythmic identities, rhythms answering one another, splitting, joining, copying, chasing…
Sometimes the music is tentative, sometimes confident. Strident. Teasing. There are so many deeper rhythmic structures to the music than those four beats to the bar.
Which is why I’m going to talk a lot about rhythmic qualities on this course, without mentioning a single time signature. Probably.
Let’s wrap this up with a quick quiz. You’re going to need to listen carefully to two pieces of music…
We’re going to take two clips. Listen carefully to both.
Which of these clips is rhythmically better?
Think about the rhythmic qualities of each piece, and listen carefully to both clips before answering. ..
So Time (or more specifically Rhythm) describes the first axis of musical space.
Next chapter comes music’s 2nd dimension: