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The National Symphony Orchestra


Music is "spirit, but spirit subject to the measurement of time," wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine. "I got rhythm," wrote George and Ira Gershwin a century later. They were talking about the same thing.

Rhythm is the way music is organized and measured in time. It is the structuring of music according to sounds and silences of varying duration, and the forming of measured sounds and silences into patterns. The patterns fit in a framework of beats, subdivisions of beats, and groups of beats. We think of music as something that moves. Rhythm is what makes it move; it is the carriage on which music rides through time. And the patterns and combinations of rhythm determine how music moves through time, whether it flows or marches or dances, whether it skips or shuffles.

Rhythm is also a generic term used to refer to any measured pattern in either sound or movement. The various combinations of long and short sounds — dots and dashes — that make up the alphabet in Morse code, for example, are all "rhythms," or "rhythmic figures," even though they're not music. Think, too, of the rhythms of speech, the rhythm of the waves, or the rhythm of a horse's gallop.

In musical notation, the different durational values of sounds and silences are indicated by the various kinds of notes and rests — whole notes and whole rests, half notes and half rests, quarter notes and quarter rests, eighth notes and eighth rests, and so on. These notes, or note values, can be combined and connected to create an infinite variety of rhythms and rhythmic patterns. Differences in tempo, in the speed of music, change the absolute duration of notes but not the relative duration. Changing the tempo, in other words, does not change the rhythm, it just speeds it up or slows it down.

Meter is not the same thing as rhythm, although it falls into rhythm's domain. Meter refers specifically to the organization of recurring groups of beats into measures. A beat and a measure are both units of time, and each can be divided in an infinite number of ways, into any pattern of longer, shorter, or equal note values and silences, into any rhythm. Rhythm and meter are not always easy to separate, however, because they exert a mutual influence: certain rhythms can imply certain meters, and certain meters can give rise to characteristic rhythms.

"The body is a rhythm machine," in the words of Mickey Hart, drummer of the rock group the Grateful Dead. We breathe in a rhythm, and our hearts beat in a rhythm. Every physical movement, conscious or unconscious, creates a rhythm, implies a rhythm, or is governed by a rhythm. It comes as no surprise, then, that rhythm is an essential element of all music. There can be rhythm without melody — think of a drumbeat — but no melody without rhythm, without some notes lasting longer than others. Harmony, too, always has a rhythmic component: when harmonies change can be as important as the changes themselves. For every moment in a musical composition, the composer must decide which rhythm or rhythmic pattern, in the context of the tempo and in combination with the melody and harmony, will be the most effective, the most persuasive, the most beautiful. The motion of a piece of music, after all, has a lot to do with how moving it will be.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.