Rhythm Lesson 3
rhythm characteristics

Five Characteristics of Rhythm

I know that the twelve notes in each octave and the variety of rhythm offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Rhythm is the organization of musical notes in time, which includes the beat (or pulse), meter, tempo, and patterns of long and short note values. For a whole composition, rhythm determines where the climax occurs, how fast the harmony changes, where the music pauses at cadences, and how one musical section balances another. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were masters of timing. They knew that the right note must come at the right time. The concept of time is very abstract; no one has ever seen time -- one hears or sees only the effect of time on something. However, in music, time is felt as well as heard. From the standpoint of a listener (not a performer) I have found that musical time can be subdivided into five different characteristics: prominence, complexity, consistency, flexibility, and some degree of syncopation.

music conductor.gif

1. Prominence

  • Prominent
  • Equivalent
  • Subordinate

2. Complexity

  • Complex
  • Simple
  • Complex (additive) meters

3. Consistency

  • Motoric
  • Flexible
  • Unpredictable

4. Expressiveness

  • Expressive
  • Rubato
  • Mechanical (metronomic)

5. Syncopation

  • Frequent syncopation
  • No syncopation

Unless a particular musical work is perfectly metronomic, computer-generated, and soulless, all music exhibits one or more of these five characteristics, best understood as markers along a continuum.

1. Prominence

In the video on quadruple meter, I explained how musical elements are psychologically located in a foreground or background. The highly prominent rhythms of rap, hip hop, disco are placed right up close in foreground in the musical space, in front of other elements of melody and harmony, whereas Gregorian chant locates melody in the immediate foreground and places rhythm far in the background. Just as a lone tree stands prominently out in an open field, the presence of a pulse in relation to melody and harmony can standout prominently or like a support beam in an old-fashioned railroad trestle be subordinate to every element of music. Play the following examples to hear the degrees of rhythmic prominence.

Igor Stravinsky


Prominent Rhythm

Rhythm is in the foreground, overshadowing the melody and harmony, functioning as a driving force or effect. Classical music of the twentieth century, notably of Igor Stravinsky, explores the exponential and explosive power of rhythm. The excerpt is from "Rite of Spring."

The example I used for "prominent" rhythm does not contain drums or other percussion, as this would be too obvious; instead, the rhythmic prominence is produced solely by pitched instruments. In the "equivalent" example, you can feel a faint but regular pulse but it doesn't dominate the melody or harmony.

1. Prominence Continued

When the melody, rhythm, and harmony are emphasized equally in the music, each of the musical elements share an equivalent degree of prominence. Like a portrait of a wheat field, no single part of the landscape stands out to dominate another part.

Claude Debussy


Equivalent Rhythm

The presence of a pulse effectively occupies the same musical space as do the melody and harmony, often being hard to isolate as a separate element in your musical perception. Impressionist music, especially of Claude Debussy, seems to fit this middle place in the continuum. The piano piece is called "Reverie."

In art and life, a part is subordinate when it is regarded less important in relation to other parts of the whole. When a father is on leave from Iraq, only one thing is important to him; his house, truck, and fishing trip are all subordinate to his time with his son.

Evelyn Tubb


Subordinate Rhythm

The presence of a pulse is deeply embedded within a melody or harmony or otherwise not immediately perceived in one's hearing of musical sounds. In this case, rhythm is a flowing byproduct of the singer's articulation of the vowels and syllables of the text. Singing the role of Humility in Ordo Virtutum by Hildegard of Bingen, soprano Evelyn Tubb sounds like an angel on earth.

Of course the range of prominence to subordinate is infinite, constantly changing in degrees with each performer's technical playing ability, interpretation biases, and other human variables. This is one reason why music is the greatest art form.

2. Complexity

Rhythmic complexity involves a range between regular, easily perceived pulses and irregular and unpredictable pulses. The rhythm of music -- in the form of a simple beat -- may be the simplest, most primitive level of musical expression but rhythm can also be the most complicated element of music. Traditionally, music contains a constant meter specified by a time signature. Bar lines (or measures) define metric units, and beats that immediately follow bar lines are accented, as in 4-4 time | ONE-two-three-four | ONE-two-three-four | and so on, where the first beat (ONE) receives the strongest accent and the third beat (three) receives a slight "kick" in comparison to beats two and four. If all music followed these predictable metric rules, things would become boring in a hurry (my apologies to the Wiggles!), so composers have found clever ways to make rhythms less predictable and more interesting; that is, they added complexity. Play the examples below to hear the degrees of rhythmic complexity.

Alberto Ginastera


Complex Rhythm

Rhythm comprised of shifting accents, changing time signatures, or ambiguity of pulse. A complex rhythm can be either prominent or subordinate. One of the greatest masters of rhythm is the Brazilian composer Alberto Ginastera. The piece is called "Estancia Los Peones de Hacienda." Just imagine yourself at the conductor's podium and conducting this music with mathematical accuracy and precision. No small feat.

Although a full explanation of how rhythms are manipulated belongs in a music theory class, a few examples will get the point across. One way to increase complexity is to shift accents (real or implied) from their normally expected locations in the meter. So rather than stressing the downbeat (first beat of the measure), the second or third beat can receive the greatest stress. Couple this change with a rhythmic pattern that constantly shifts the accents form one beat to another you asymmetric beats. Imagine skiing (or snowboarding) down a steep but familiar run at White Pass blindfolded. You have an idea where most of the moguls and trees lie in your path, but you are surprised when a bump appears unexpectedly, catching you off guard. Fun. Another way complexity is achieved is through irregular or usual time signatures, such as 5-4 time or 7-8 time. Measures in 5-4 time can divide pulses in a measure either 3-2 or 2-3; measures in 7-8 time are divided in 2-2-3 or 4-3 divisions. These time divisions are extremely important for the performer, who must count out all of the pulses accurately, but from the listener's perspective, the net effect of rhythmic complexity is what matters.

2. Complexity Continued

Something is simple when it is easily perceived or understood. Simplicity in art and science can be deceptive. When an idea appears simple, it may be very complex. Einstein's apparently simple equation for mass-energy equivalency E = mc² requires knowledge of physics and math to fully understand. Pablo Picasso's line drawing of Don Quixote looks so simple that a child could have drawn the image. But try to duplicate the image yourself by copying the lines; you will soon discover the drawing is much harder to do well than it looks.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Simple Rhythm

When the pulse of music rarely (or never) does anything unusual or unexpected. Remember, just because a rhythm is predictable (or simple) is not to say the music is some how inferior. Generations of composers wrote music in predictable 2-2, 3-4, or 4-4 meters, performers were taught to observe them, and listeners were expected to perceive them. ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two, etc. The example is "Dance of the Reed Pipes" by Tchaikovsky.

In music, simple rhythms tend also to be prominent since the beats need to stand in clarity among the other musical elements.

Source: I.M. Freeman. 1987. Physics Made Simple. New York: Double Day.

Complex Meters

Beats can be grouped into more complex meters than duple, triple, or sextuple meters. Different beat patterns can be joined together to form a complex or additive meter. Gustav Holst (1874-1934) composed a seven-movement orchestral suite called The Planets. Starting with "Mars, the Bringer of War," each movement is a musical representation of a specific planet in the solar system and its significance to Greek and Roman mythology. "Mars" is in 5-4 time and the pulse is motoric, complex and prominent, conveying a driving martial rhythm.

Gustav Holst


Mars Rhythm.gif

Blue Rondo a la Turk

In Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk, the main theme 9-8 time, consists of 36 beats, which are divided into four equal nine-pulse units. The pulse is also motoric, complex and prominent.

Dave Brubeck

Blue Rondo Rhythms.gif

Sacrificial Dance

One of the most complex rhythms occurs in "Sacrificial Dance" from Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The meter alternates between two- three- and four-beat groupings, creating an irregular beat pattern. The result is a complex rhythm that sounds primitive. Try dancing to this one.

Sacrficial Dance.gif

3. Consistency

In the model of critical thinking, consistency is thinking, acting, or speaking in agreement with what has already been thought, done, or expressed; to have intellectual or moral integrity ("Glossary"). In classical music, the degree of consistency in rhythm is a defining characteristic of a style period. The rhythm of Baroque era music, for example, is very consistent. From beginning to the end of a piece, the tempo and meter remain very steady except for brief periods of slowing at cadences. This consistent, driving rhythm, called "motor rhythm" or "motoric" rhythms, is similar to the pistons of inside a car's engine providing the driving force for the vehicle. In contrast, rhythms of Romantic and late-Classical eras are much more flexible, even capricious. Titles of compositions, such as "Rhapsody," Capriccio," Caprice," and Fantasia" reflect the spontaneous and arbitrary nature of the rhythms. Where explicit rhythmic instructions are provided by the composer or conductor, consistency of pulse is a matter of degree, ranging from highly consistent (motoric) to highly inconsistent (unpredictable). Roll your mouse over the degrees of rhythmic consistency indicated in the following buttons.


Motoric Rhythm

A consistent, persistent driving pulse that is repeated throughout a Baroque-era composition, such as this keyboard prelude by J.S. Bach, played by Glenn Gould. Note that although Glenn's playing is very consistent, it is NOT mechanical, as you can sense a fantastically organized but sensitive mind at work behind the notes.

Keith Jarrett


Flexible Rhythm

A steady pulse in which accent of each down beat is consistent, but the overall tempo fluctuates according to the performer's feelings. Listen very carefully to Keith Jarrett play the Prelude in F-sharp major by Dimitri Shostakovich. A perfect blend of heart and mind.

John-Yves Thibaudet


Unpredictable Rhythm

Unpredictable (or capricious) rhythms reflect an inclination to change one's mind or direction on a whim, similar to an improvisation. This excerpt is a jazz improvisation of a Bill Evan's composition, played by John-Yves Thibaudet.

Consistency in music can be taken too far. There is something inhuman or mechanical in the metric perfection created by a digital drum machine or computer. A good drummer, pianist or singer can play at a steady beat or tempo, but she knows intuitively when to stretch or contract time in order to express feeling in the music. The concept of consistency is closely related to flexibility, which is explained on the next page.

Source: "Critical Thinking Glossary: An Educator's Guide to Critical Thinking Terms and Concepts." (2004). The critical thinking community. Retrieved from http://www.criticalthinking.org/resources/articles/glossary.shtml

4. Expressiveness

As a function of flexibility, expressiveness in rhythm relates to the length of time that a note is to be sounded or the length of time that a rest should be observed (silence). This may involve taking part of the duration from one note and giving it to another or the performer tastefully stretching, slowing, or hurrying the tempo as he or she sees fit, thus imparting flexibility and emotion to the performance. Whereas rhythmic consistency refers to the pulses in the overall composition, from start to finish, rhythmic flexibility refers to pulses of a specific part or phrase of music. Two important features of rhythmic flexibility are accelerando and ritardando. Accelerando is an Italian word that means "hastening." In music it means getting faster gradually, not suddenly. Composers include accelerando passages to make a smooth transition from a slow section to a fast section. Ritardano, on the other hand, is the opposing Italian word, meaning "to gradually delay or slow down the tempo." When these two tempo instructions are combined, we get rubato. Rubato is yet another Italian term, meaning to "rob" the time values by holding-back or speeding up at will to color a phrase while the underlying pulse remains constant. The effect of rubato is a free-flowing expressiveness as opposed to a mechanically correct but stiff interpretation. The music of Mozart and Chopin use rubato, especially in their slow works such as adagios and nocturnes. The amount of rubato applied to a melody is usually left up to the interpreter's discretion, but if a composer wants to be sure, he or she writes "rubato," or "molto rubato," which means play the music very freely -- but still stay within the ballpark of the pulse. Roll your mouse over the degrees of rhythmic expressiveness indicated in the following buttons.

Isaac Albeniz


Expressive Rhythm

Expressive rhythm involves fluctuations in the tempo where the pulse speeds up or slows down according to the composer's expression marks or player's feelings (or both). The most common forms of rhythmic expressiveness are ritardando and accelerando. Music can have a strong pulse and still be expressive. A piano work in 3-4 time by Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909), "L'Automne Waltz" exhibits very expressive rhythms. It would be hard to dance to this waltz.

On the other end of the expressiveness continuum from the subtle fluctuations of rubato is mechanical rhythm. In art, mechanical is the sense of showing little or no feeling of spontaneity. Mechanical rhythm is often called metronomic. A metronome is a mechanical or electronic device that keeps a regular beat and may be adjusted to any desired speed (tempo), used by musicians for practicing difficult rhythmic passages. I use a metronome when I play scales; the steady beat of the metronome helps me play the scales more evenly, and I can increase the speed of my playing by slowly increasing the tempo on the swing arm of the metronome, one notch at a time. (See web page lesson on Tempo for more information.)

John Adams


Mechanical Rhythm

Mechanical rhythm exhibits no fluctuations in pulse or tempo from the start to finish of a section or work. John Coolidge Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" is a good example of mechanical rhythm. The pulse is very steady, with little or no speeding up or slowing down. You could set your watch to the constant rhythms. Kamien analyzes this work on page 365.

5. Syncopation

A characteristic of rhythm that most Americans cannot live without is syncopation, which involves deliberately upsetting the normal, expected beat pattern. Instead of falling on the down beat of each measure, the accent is shifted to a weak beat or to an "off" beat (in between beats). Syncopation occurs when short notes, ties, or rests displace the natural accents in a beat pattern. For example, compare the following 4-4 drum beat patterns played on a standard drum kit, where the pulse is accented on a ride cymbal. Examples one and two are played in a straight 4-4 time, with the ride cymbal accents on the first and third beats. In examples three and four, which are backbeat rhythms, the ride cymbal accents held over for one beat longer, creating syncopation. The difference is subtle but with repeated listening you should hear/feel the difference between syncopated and unsyncopated rhythms. (Note, you should have a subwoofer or your headphones on to hear the bass drum that provides the downbeat in each of the examples.)

4-4 without syncopation_2.gif

No Syncopation

Beat accents fall on the first and third beats of each measure.

4-4 with syncopation.gif


The accent is still on the first and third beat but the pulse in the ride cymbal is shifted to the second and third beat of each measure. Listen carefully to this one.

backbeat without syncopation.gif

Backbeat No Syncopation

The accents of the ride cymbal falls the second and fourth beat of each measure.

backbeat with syncopation.gif

Backbeat with Syncopation

The pulse of the ride cymbal appears on the off-beats while the backbeat stresses the second and fourth beat of each measure. Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?

When the Cassions Go Rolling Along

In this familiar example, which is in 4-4 time, you can hear the words "casi - SONS - go - roll -ING - along," where the syllables "SONS" and "ING" accent the weak beats. This is syncopation. By the way, a cassion is is a horse-drawn (or jeep-drawn) cart used to carry artillery ammunition or coffins at military funerals.


Maple Leaf Rag Syncopation

Syncopation keeps the recurrent accent on the down beat from becoming monotonous. However, even a syncopated rhythm, if carried on repetitively throughout the composition (i.e., teeny-bopper pop music) can become tiresome. Syncopation has appeared prominently since the Renaissance period and was used by Mozart and Beethoven; syncopation reached its zenith in African-American dance rhythms, from which jazz music developed. Ragtime music is essentially all syncopated, with the Maple Leaf Rag being the poster child for this genre. In the Maple Leaf Rag, the accent falls on the off-beats (indicated in blue) while the downbeat (indicated in red) is unaccented -- even though this downbeat keeps a consistent duple meter: ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two, etc. If you think about the complexity of the syncopated rhythms, it's pretty amazing. Joplin was a rhythmic genius.

Maple Leaf Rag Syncopation.gif

Hotter Than That

Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) is recognized as the greatest trumpet player from the Dixieland and New Orleans style of jazz. This style of jazz consisted of music in four beats per measure with a strong upbeat. Armstrong also introduced scat singing, which is a vocal style that sets syllable sounds (without meaning) to an improvised melody line. In the song "Hotter Than That," Armstrong sings notes on the off-beats rather than directly on the expected beats. From the resulting syncopation, Armstrong's voice bounces and rides above the steady beats of the music like a surfer catching a wave and then gliding over smaller, turbulent waves. Or like a skier skiing over the tops of several moguls (small but steep bumps) at a time rather than each mogul separately.

Armstrong Scat Syncopation.gif

Treat Her Like A Lady

The versatile and dynamic Celine Dion provides syncopation in her song "Treat Her Like a Lady" (produced in 1999). Although Celine sings frequent syncopated rhythms throughout the song, it is her backup singers who stand out in syncopated glory, providing a textbook example of how it's done.

Celine Syncopation.gif

Conductor Paul McRae on Rhythm

In the following video Paul Anthony McRae, reviews the main principles of rhythm and tempo by using various instruments of the orchestra. To view the video make sure you have the latest version of QuickTime player.

Principles of Rhythm and Tempo

Rhythm Exercise 1

Let's see if you can identify the major rhythmic characteristics in the following rhythm examples. The characteristics covered in this web page lesson are prominence, complexity, consistency, expressiveness, and syncopation. The first set of problems contains the music examples used in the lesson; the other problems are ones that you may not be familiar with.

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Rhythm Exercise 2

Let's see if you can identify the major rhythmic characteristics in the following rhythm examples. The characteristics covered in this web page lesson are prominence, complexity, consistency, expressiveness, and syncopation. The first set of problems contains the music examples used in the lesson; the other problems are ones that you may not be familiar with.

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Rhythm Exercise 3

Let's see if you can identify the major rhythmic characteristics in the following rhythm examples. The characteristics covered in this web page lesson are prominence, complexity, consistency, expressiveness, and syncopation. These problems are ones that you may not be familiar with.

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END Rhythm Lesson 3

Move to Tempo Lesson . . .