Some Considerations on Rhythm Seen as a Natural Element


Transforming Boredom into Enthusiasm, An Essential Ingredient
for Recovering Talent

by Antonio Buonomo

The famous musicologist and conductor, Hans Von Bulow, paraphrasing a passage from the Gospel according to John, once said, “Am Anfang war der Rhithmus” (in the beginning was rhythm). Many years before, Confucius had said, “Music is rhythm.”
We can venture to say that rhythm, as the event that underlies all the arts, in its accepted technical meaning, represents the natural element that orders sounds.
This ordered dimension of sounds in musical execution, can be obtained in two ways: reading the duration symbols in the notation or instinctively followed the succession of strong and weak accents.
In the first case, you run the risk of creating an artificial rhythm, inasmuch as it depends solely on reading musical values. While in the second, you are executing an instinctive, and therefore natural, rhythm.
The performer must be able to tell the difference between the two modes, in order to establish the predominance of the natural element over the artificial. But this, obviously, becomes difficult when the rhythm is identified with the value figures and/or confused with other artificial coefficients of the notation, such as the measure, whose utility is beyond question.
In antiquity, rhythm was the only musical element known. The aborigines of some ethnic groups still play and keep time without knowing any notation, or measures or duration values.
Rhythm is also the constant law of organic activity (cardiac rhythms, respiratory rhythms, etc.). The rapidity of organic rhythms is always in relation to the physical effort necessary to accomplish any physical task: running will accelerate the heart beat and the respiration, just as a piece of music can be accelerated by the performer or the orchestra conductor, when the interpretation requires it, without losing the rhythm.

René Dumesnil, the author of an important treatise on musical rhythm, has observed that in Wagner's operas we often encounter “Leitmotivs” with an invariable rhythm that adapt to the most diverse measures: binary or ternary, simple or compound. In practice, what maintains their rhythmic unity, making them recognizable, is the succession of accents that always return in punctually in an identical order, independently of their duration values.
Another example of rhythmic autonomy is found in the Allegro of the “Nabucco” symphony by Verdi, where the same theme is written in two different ways. In 4/4 time (two beats) with a half-note rest, quarter notes and two eighth notes and again two eighth notes, a quarter-note rest, a quarter note and two eighth notes. In the subsequent Allegro (cut time in one beat), the figure is presented with a half-note and two quarter notes, two quarter notes and a half-note rest, in such a way that the accents do not fall at the same points. So, in 4/4 time, the theme starts on an unaccented beat, while in cut time, the same theme starts on the beat. The rhythmic sensation that we experience is the same, and, listening to them separately, we don't notice that we are listening to one version or the other.
We can find other examples of the predominance of the natural component over the artificial in the rhythms of popular music (Classical Jazz, Afro-Latin American, etc.) where the performer rarely follows the written music, and this, not because he memorized the duration values for the sounds (nor could he, seeing as how instrumentalists must also improvise in these musical genres), but only because he has a marked sense of rhythm.
In “cultured music,” on the other hand, the opposite often happens because some performers, in place of creating the rhythm naturally (through a succession of strong and weak accents at regular intervals-, independently of their duration), they create it by counting the value figures. So, even for the performance of simple, well-known popular pieces, they are forced to follow the part or learn the duration values for the sounds by heart.
You should not, then, be surprised by the fact that you will hear prepared musicians, when they are deprived of the graphic support that triggers their rhythms, create what technically is defined as a “squaring.”

The explanation of this phenomenon is to be found in the fact that, in traditional foundation studies, there is a preference for learning the value symbols, which are still considered preparatory, for practical exercises (as if to make a child talk, you would first teach him to read). And, in the second place, in the fact of punctually undervaluing the practice of popular genres, with a predominantly rhythmic character, which would be very useful at a formative level. Finally, in ignoring the great potential offered by modern technology that, combining parameters such as vision and hearing, whose absence has always limited the didactic effectiveness of the written book, has opened new frontiers in musical education at all levels.
Acquiring rhythm in an instinctive manner would, on the other hand, be preparation for the creative improvisation of avant-garde music, transforming the fragmentation of traditional rhythmic schemes only into a matter of graphics. This is because the randomness (in other words, the composer's decision to the responsibility for rhythmic creation wholly, or in part, to the performer) that often accompanies the rhythmic asymmetry could be interpreted in a linear way if the performer was able to give a framework, in a classical sense, to the new signs.

Great importance is given to the rhythmic element in the study of basic musical theory. On the other hand, it often happens, in practice, that the expansion of times, with the exaggerated use of subdivision, together with self-directed movements and search for the names of the notes, often lead to confusing the only natural element in the music with other artificial components of the notation that, while important for performance purposes, do not replace what Arthur Honegger rightly defined as the fundamental element of the music.

So, a basic change in the direction of musical instruction would be desirable. A change that would give precedence to instinctive applications in anticipation of those practical solutions that, transforming boredom that often accompanies the traditional method into enthusiasm, could recover the many elements that musical schools seem to prematurely drive away.

Article published by the newspaper, “La gazzetta della musica.”