Appreciating Music: Rhythm

Jun 29, 2017

In an earlier post, I talked about how melody is one of the primary elements of music that enables a listener to better grasp and appreciate a piece of music. Rhythm is the other element that helps to structure music and is half of what defines music. Music is taking dominion over sound in time. With either strict or non-strict rhythmic forms, music places sound in time.

The idea of measured or strict rhythm came about slowly. Composers first introduced this idea around 1150. While it took a while for the idea to take hold, this is when composers developed a suitable way to convey rhythm independent of lyrics. Previously, the rhythm of music was dependent on the patterns of natural speech with instruments reinforcing the rhythms of sung or chanted texts. With the introduction of written rhythm, increasing complex compositions were possible.

Rhythm and marking time are an integral part of the created order. God created humans with natural rhythm patterns as part of their anatomy—we have all got rhythm. The beating of the heart creates a pattern of three beats: two thumps and a rest. The pulse measures as an even pattern of two beats: stressed and unstressed. Go ahead—try it! Patterns of two and three are the basis of all rhythmic functions and relations, whether music is in strict time (4/4, ¾, 2/4, etc), unusual meter (5/8, 7/8, 5/4, etc), or mixed meter.

In an essay for the book Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education, I wrote about ways to consider rhythm. They are as follows:

  1. How is time organized in this music? 
  2. Is there a strict or non-strict measuring of rhythm?
  3. How is the rhythm of the music grouped? What is the time signature(s)? 
  4. Are there rhythmic patterns and variations?
  5. Does the music balance time well? Do the sections of the piece feel like they are in appropriate proportion to one another?
  6. Is there a sense of completeness or movement from beginning to end?

Music works on a variety of rhythmic levels: from the individual measures; to motifs; to time signatures; to overall sections. Think of this as analogous to minutes, hours, days, months, seasons, years, etc. Time functions in a multiplicity of layers as wheels within wheels. The different levels have meaning within themselves but gain greater meaning and complexity in relationship to the other levels. The earth spins on its axis while traveling around the sun in a orbit with other spheres while the sun moves in an orbit around the center of the Milky Way including a progression of movement known as the Great Year. Each of these movements takes a specified amount of time. Orbits in orbits; wheels in wheels.

Melody and rhythm are two guides that provide substance to assist in learning a piece of music as to its meaning, degree of success, and objective form and content. Rhythm and time function as structural frameworks for the adornment of sound as manifested by melody and harmony. Time gives sound meaning and sound brings beauty to time. 

Greg Wilbur

Greg Wilbur

Gregory Wilbur is Chief Musician at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN, as well as Dean and Senior Fellow of New College Franklin. He is the author of Glory and Honor: The Music and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach and has released two CDs of his compositions of congregational psalms, hymns and service music. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or it's leadership.

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS