I. A Working Definition of Rhythm

There was no time. Then God hit the gong and there was a before and after. Then he hit the gong again and there was duration.        ---Olivier Messiaen

The visual arts take form in space; music takes form in time. In the most general sense, “rhythm” may refer to any of music's temporal aspects: the length of individual tones in a series, the order in which soloists enter in an ensemble, or the speed of events in a piece which allows us to describe the music as fast or slow. When we say "that's the rhythm of the National Anthem," we are using the word “rhythm” in a more specific but quite conventional way: to describe a particular pattern of tones–some long, others short, some emphasized, some not– which characterizes the melody of the Star Spangled Banner. When we say "jazz rhythms," "salsa rhythms," "the rhythm of the minuet," we use the term similarly to refer to typical patterns of accent and duration in those styles. Both uses of the term may be associated with notation. For a performer, "the rhythm of the Star Spangled Banner” might call to mind the notation of an identifying pattern:

Example 1

 Example 1

While the vocabulary of music symbols is varied and sophisticated, we acknowledge that many of the subtleties we incorporate into a successful performance cannot be indicated on the score page. Thus, when we consider some of the fundamental qualities of music, it is wise to begin with these qualities as we hear them, rather than as we see them represented on paper. Notation will be introduced as it becomes useful to represent visually those patterns of duration and emphasis that we have already assimilated through listening. Our working definition of “rhythm,” therefore, must be broad enough in scope to cover any experience we wish to describe as “musical.”

First let us clarify a few of the terms we will use to form our definition of rhythm. These terms are “sound event,” “duration,” chronology,” and “temporal character.” A sound event can be any separable element of the music you wish to identify: a drum track from a multi-voiced ensemble, the tenor’s high note in an aria (as well as the entire aria), or a series of chord changes (as well as each chord in the series). Sound events have three temporal qualities: 1. duration refers to the time span taken up by the event—how long it lasts from its onset or attack to its cut-off or end; 2. chronology considers the order of events and, importantly, how quickly or slowly they succeed each other; 3. the temporal character of a musical passage is made up of all its rhythmic components; it is the overall impression we get when we hear it. We will likely use subjective terms for this impression: the music is "very active," "calm," "swinging," "flowing," and so on.  From these ideas we can formulate the following working definition of rhythm:

Rhythm is the dimension of music that deals with
patterns of duration, chronology, and the temporal character of sound events.

 

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