But today I am going to talk about the rhythmic aspect of music. Music is a "time-art" meaning that not only does it, like theater, take place in time, but even more, everything about music is about vibrations:
These vibrations take place on multiple levels. Most obviously, music tends to organize itself around a recurring pulse:
But let me back up a bit and tell you what I used to tell my students: even though music is a time-art, when we talk about the "timing" of music, that only refers to the duration of a piece. When you look at a CD cover or the second column in your iTunes playlist you see the time or timing of each piece in minutes and seconds. Time and timing are not musical terms, though. In music we have three separate terms, none of which is time or timing. The first is "pulse."
Pulse is related, of course, to your pulse and for a lot of music history the typical pulse of most pieces was not far from the range of the human pulse. We like pulse in music as it is the simplest and most compelling way of organizing time. Steve Reich has written pieces that use pulse in a very primal way:
|Click to enlarge|
|Click to enlarge|
Those numbers at the beginning tell you the meter. The 3/2 means "each measure (or package) has three beats and each beat is notated as a half note." The alternate meter of 6/4 means that "each measure has six beats and each beat is notated as a quarter note." Why the ambiguity? Steve Reich plays with meter in his music, constantly re-interpreting how the meter can be felt.
So now we know what pulse and meter are. The third word used by musicians is "rhythm" and it is used in a couple of senses. First, it can be used as a kind of generic term referring to all the elements of music that are time-related. "Ya gotta have rhythm!" But it is used in a specific sense as well. Rhythm is the pattern of notes of different durations that we hear as the surface of the music. The rhythm of Drumming as Reich shows it in his note is "three eighth notes, eighth note rest, eighth note, eighth note rest, three eighth notes, eighth note rest, eighth note, eighth note rest." So you see why we invented notation! The rhythm is always changing (yes, and repeating as well), but the pulse and the meter are the same.
But everything in music is a kind of vibration, not just the rhythmic aspect. Each musical note or pitch is a collection of vibrations at different frequencies. You have heard the term "A = 440?" This refers to a specific pitch, the note A, one example of which vibrates 440 times per second. This creates a particular pitch, one that musicians typically use to tune to. So each note in a melody is actually a specific vibration. Harmony? Well, harmony is just different pitches as they sound together so harmony is also a collection of vibrations. Everything in music is vibrations!
Let's listen to a particularly felicitous collection of vibrations by one of those dead white guys. This is the Symphony No. 39 by Joseph Haydn in a spirited performance by The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock:
UPDATE: I replaced my original Drumming clip with a different performance that makes my point better.