The Nuts and Bolts of Music - Part One: Rhythm


Dr. William Leland
Las Cruces, NM USA


et's begin with what is probably the most fundamental and intuitive musical element of all--rhythm. Everybody knows what rhythm is, right? But could we define it in words? Well, a good start would be to say that rhythm is the one element of music that we feel rather than hear. Of course, instruments and voices make sounds in rhythm, but rhythm itself is a visceral--not an aural--thing, that can exist whether there is sound or not; that's why music students so often have trouble trying to follow a metronome, because that diabolical contraption of necessity has to make rhythm into something that is heard instead of felt.


keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)This article includes musical illustrations in MIDI sound; to hear them, click on each example separately as you come to it. The linked musical examples will open in a separate tab or window.


Rhythm is Felt, Not Heard:

Just what is it that we feel? A beat, you might say, and this not only rings true but gets--literally--to the heart of the matter: our own bodies are rhythmic; we feel our own pulse, our own heartbeat, our own movements, as repetitive pulsations. And so it would be pretty accurate to say that, of all music's individual elements, rhythm is probably the most fundamental of all.

Rhythm is Regular:

Another thing we can say at the outset is that, unless altered temporarily by specific directions, musical rhythm is regular: its beats come in uniformly recurring units of time rather than erratically--another aspect of rhythm that is mirrored in our own bodies by, say, a steady walk or a healthy resting pulse.

The Three Components of Rhythm:

Rhythm in music generally manifests itself in three ways:

  • Tempo: tempo simply means speed. Click here [Ex.1] to hear a familiar tune played at a slow tempo. Then listen to the same tune at a fast tempo [Ex.2]. Note that nothing whatsoever has changed except the speed. Tempo can even be altered while the tune is in progress [Ex.3].
  • Meter: a meter is a device which measures things in units; musical meter measures the beats, by dividing them into recurring groups. There are two reasons for doing this: one is that it would be unwieldy to count the rhythm of, say, "The Star-Spangled Banner" by having to go all the way from one to 96; if it were the first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony you'd have to count to 1102 (imagine the conductor in rehearsal saying, "...all right, let's take it from beat number eight hundred and twelve...").

    The other reason is that the rhythms of everyday life tend to divide themselves into groups naturally: walking, for example, is left-right, left-right, i.e., one-two, one-two [Ex.4]; and two two's quite naturally combine into four: one-two-three-four [Ex.5]. The beats of "Happy Birthday" are in recurring groups of three [Ex.6]. Whatever the combination, each group is called a measure, and since the measures keep repeating the same group of beats, we can count the meter of "Happy Birthday" without having to say numbers any higher than three. Measures containing more than four beats are considered to be combinations of the simple meters (two, three and four), and are called compound meters.

    One more thing about measures: as the groups keep repeating, the first beat of each group tends to be felt as stronger than the others, as you can hear in the previous example; it's called the downbeat. The word came from the movement of the conductor's hand, which is always downward on the first beat of a measure; the beat just before it is called the upbeat, for the same reason.
  • Pattern: pattern refers to the combined lengths of the individual notes, rather than that of the underlying beats. You can always hold a note longer than one beat, for instance, or crowd more than one note into a single beat--the possibilities are endless--and the resulting arrangement of the time values of the notes themselves, superimposed on the underlying beat, is called the rhythmic pattern.

    Listen to the beginning of "Happy Birthday" again, and notice that on the word "happy", two notes are crowded into one beat, while the word "you" is held for two beats [Ex.7]. This arrangement results in a repeated two-measure pattern of two short notes, three one-beat notes, and one longer note lasting two beats; listen to this pattern by itself, without the notes [Ex.8].

    Now play Example 8 again and see if you can think of another familiar tune which begins with exactly the same rhythmic pattern. If you can't come up with it, here it is [Ex.9]. You could play the tunes together, and even though they don't harmonize very well, they match note for note in pattern [Ex. 10].

Playing Around With Rhythm:

Let's do some fooling around with the three different components of rhythm, using good old "Happy Birthday". We've already illustrated a change of tempo; what if we changed the meter? Suppose we fitted the song into a meter of two beats instead of three? We'd have to speed up parts of the pattern to allow for the 'missing' beat in each measure [Ex.11]. Now, fitting it into four beats would force us instead to lengthen some of the notes of the pattern, because each measure now has an extra beat compared to the original [Ex.12]. The notes have not been changed in any way except length, but notice again that changing the meter forced us also to change the pattern, in order to keep the words lined up with the downbeats. Changing the meter to two, while keeping the original pattern (which was designed for three), would throw the two components out of sync with each other [Ex.13]. Weird!

See if you can recognize another familiar tune when both meter and pattern have been altered [Ex.14]. That's right, we took our favorite march and made a waltz out of it. O.K. then, to be fair, let's turn a waltz into a march [Ex.15].

Music as Fun:

The late Alec Templeton came up with this last caper; he called it "The Danube Blue Forever" (Templeton was the Victor Borge of his day). But surprisingly few people realize how often the great composers themselves used tricks of rhythm (as well as many other elements) in ways fully intended to be capricious and even downright funny. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in particular, often employed shenanigans such as sudden stops and starts, displaced accents, abrupt tempo changes, out-of-sync patterns and the like, in their lighter compositions. If you'd like to track some of them down, you might start here:

It is one of the basic premises of this series of articles, and indeed of our entire web site, that music should be fun -- and we hope to help point the way.

Page created: 4/21/07
Last updated: 01/30/15
Site Policies Credits About Feedback Reprinting

Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
Copyright 1995-2016 John M. Zeigler. All rights reserved.