Musical Rhythm

The Timing of Events in Music Performance

Father and daughter playing music in kitchen
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In music, rhythm is a result of a timed sequence that follows a steady beat. In other common musical terms, it is also referred to as ritmo (Italian), rythme (French) and Rhythmus (German). Frequently, the term "rhythm" is used synonymously or interchangeably with tempo," but their meanings are not exactly the same. While the tempo refers to the "time" or "speed" of a piece of music, the rhythm defines its heartbeat. You can have a fast or slow heartbeat, but the pulsing is constant — that is the rhythm. 

Modern music notation provides several tools for a musician to understand the rhythm of a song. Namely, the meter and time signature indicate how the beats are allocated across measures, allowing the player to play the piece of music with the appropriate rhythm. On a more granular level, the rhythm can also pertain to the notes relationships to each other; if the ratio of the notes when compared to each other is incorrect within a certain beat, the rhythm may be "off." 

Creating Precise Rhythm

Rhythm in music, dance, and language or poetry is essentially the timing of events on a human scale. The rhythm and timing can include both sound and silence, but the sounds and silences, dance steps and pauses, or commas and periods all occur on a moving timeline. The timeline isn't typically rigid if it is being conducted by humans, although many professionals and amateurs prefer to practice with a metronome. Metronomes offer machine precision to the timing of a sequence, so if one is using a metronome to measure their rhythm, it will usually be more precise. When using a metronome, the tempo is set to a precise setting that typically indicates the beats per measure. Practicing regularly with the metronome can help the musician develop a consistent internal rhythm for a performance, whether the piece of music is fast, medium or slow. 

Cultural Influences

Rhythms vary when impacted by cultural influences, which is why many forms of cultural music have identifiable beats and patterns. For example, the differences in Western music when compared to Indian or African music are notably distinct. Complex patterns that represent cultural translations, such as "drum talk" in African music, continue to permeate the essence of the music and sometimes can carry-over into other music forms to add a new element to the music's rhythm.

For example, during the 20th century, many composers began experimenting with deviations from traditional classical music rhythms and forms. One of these composers was Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer known for his study of folk music. The story goes that during the summer of 1904, the composer overheard a nanny singing folk songs to children that she was watching. He was inspired by elements of the songs, and it ignited his dedication to learning about folk music. As Bartók composed, he would draw from elements of folk music, such as free, untraditional rhythms, and include them in his compositions.