Take a moment and concentrate on everything that your ears can hear right now. Whether you realize it or not, you are surrounded by rhythms. If you are in complete silence then feel your heartbeat — it has its own unique rhythm. In general terms, anything that moves or creates sound produces a rhythm. In our everyday world we may hear a melody in a bird’s song or perhaps in a car horn that plays “Dixie,” but we are experiencing rhythms at every moment in life.
In nature we may hear the repeated tapping of a woodpecker or the waves of the ocean pounding the shore. In our homes there is the ticking of a clock or perhaps the drip of a faucet. At our work place we have the repeated patterns of the copy machine or printer. In our cars the seams in the highway create a repeating pattern that bumps our vehicles. In the outside world we hear the bounce of a basketball or the barking of a dog. And, in our bodies we have our heartbeats and our breathing rates. All of these things have rhythm.
Music takes rhythmic events and organizes them to make something pleasurable for us. On a general level, rhythm defines how music passes through time. On a much smaller scale, it refers to the length of each individual note.
We must have clear definitions for several terms to gain a better understanding of rhythm and music. Rhythm consists of several parts: the beat, tempo, measure, meter, and note values. The most basic element of rhythm is the beat, which is the steady, repeating pulse in music. We often hear people say, “I like that song, it’s got a good beat.” However, the beat is simply the underlying pulse, not unlike the tick of a clock. What that person really means to say is “I like the duration of note values and how they work together in pleasing patterns in that song,” or better yet, “I like the rhythm of that song.”
Tempo is the speed of the beat. Musicians use a metronome to help them practice music at a steady tempo. A metronome is a mechanical device that provides a constant beep or tick. We measure tempo in beats per minute and a metronome marking of 60 means that there are 60 beats in a minute or one beat per second. Faster tempos excite us and can speed up our heart rate. Slower tempos can calm us and also make our heart rate slow down. The next time you are at a sporting event pay attention to the organist (or synthesizer player). When they play a repeated figure they usually get faster and faster. This speeding of the tempo is a very simple device to excite the audience. Just imagine what it would be like if the organist slowed down. Would you want to cheer?
The beats in music are naturally grouped into measures. The measures help us break down sounds into smaller groups and help us feel the rhythm better. The first beat in a measure is the strongest and is called the downbeat. Meter is the number of beats in a measure. Most music has a meter of two, three, or four.
To understand meter better, take a moment and sing the song Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. If you can’t remember the words, it goes, “twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” Now, while singing the song, tap your finger on the syllables, twin, twin, lit, star, how, won, what, and are. Go through the same process again, but this time you will count from one to four with your fingers while you tap. When you get to four, go back to one. Therefore twin=one, twin=two, lit=three, star=four, how=one, won=two, what=three, and are=four. This pattern works because Twinkle, Twinkle is in a meter of four. See if you can figure out the meter for America (My country, ’tis of thee . . .).
We often use the term rhythm to describe note values and how they fit together. Note values define the duration of an individual tone. Musicians have a very organized system that lets them know how long or short every note should be played.
Beat, tempo, measure, meter, and note values all fit together to form rhythm. Without one of those elements the rhythm would be unclear. By the way, America has a meter of three.