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How rhythm functions


vkxwz
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After doing some pretty simple/shit composition for a few years now i've become very interested in how rhythm in music actually functions, ie why things sound the way they do, create the emotion they do, just from the structure of the rhythm. I have found very little information on this online, almost nothing beyond notation and some very simple stuff that isn't really explanatory.

Seems like almost everyone can come up with some decent sounding rhythms by following their intuition for what feels right, but I suspect most of this is similar to what GPT3 does, and you are just extending the track by predicting what should come next, and that prediction comes from all the music you have heard before, which to me sounds very limiting and uncreative in a way.

From what i've gathered the stuff thats important is: hearing one bar relative to the previous, expectation, the "shape" of the music around the consistent time intervals and how that changes over time. obviously this is all stuff that you dont need to understand why it works for it to work.

Does anyone:
A) know of any good resources for learning about this
B) have any theories of your own that you'd like to share

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it might sound silly but wikipedia is a pretty good ressource to learn the basics imo:  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhythm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_(music)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_structure

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_form 

i've only read a few tiny bits of these but it was helpful. i'm pretty ignorant on the subject though. 

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One thing I would suggest is to learn to to play the drums a little bit. Although it might be impractical because drums are big and maybe also a little expensive. Failing that, get a drum machine that allows you to experiment quickly and naturally.

Then try to dissect as many songs as possible from as many sources as possible.

Food for thought: What is a drum break and how can it be used to create rhythmic tension and release? A lot of electronic music in particular could benefit greatly by adding breaks at select places, to relieve some of the monotony.

Also on the subject of drum programming: What do real drummers do naturally in terms of accents and variation in level? Just a little bit of that can liven up a dull beat quite a bit.

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12 hours ago, vkxwz said:

how rhythm in music actually functions, ie why things sound the way they do, create the emotion they do, just from the structure of the rhythm.

this is the sort of stuff i've been thinking about since i started writing music ~20 years ago. ultimately i think the emotional/whatever response to rhythm is essentially the same thing that happens with melodies/etc. but the rhythms are just (usually) lacking much of the melodic tonality, etc...rhythms and melodies often are separate obv, but i think treating them differently isn't necessarily helpful on this topic: they're both mapping sounds in patterns over time, and every pattern before this moment is important in contextualizing the current/next moments for each listener (and each listener will obv have a different reaction in part bc of this!). it's all storytelling in some sense or another, but that's a digression probably....

that said, i do think most of the time people will respond differently to a rhythm than to a melody. but ultimately both rhythm and melody are playing with the emotions and expectations of the listener. and ultimately the only thing separating rhythm from melody is just dialing a few components of a sound in differently...and of course when you start looking at those things you see just how often they blur (percussion designed to be played tonally, 'melodic' instruments that are strong almost entirely because of their percussive hearts such as pianos, guitars, and similar examples). i'm saying all this just try and drive home that i think the question of 'how does rhythm in music function' because it's just asking how music functions. all music has a rhythmic component, even if it's occasionally the seeming lack thereof (drone, noise, drifting ambient stuff)... and of course even in these cases, rhythm is inherent within even a plain drone or noise track: the tones you're hearing are created by waves moving rhythmically. it's all rhythm, even when it's not.

13 hours ago, vkxwz said:

From what i've gathered the stuff thats important is: hearing one bar relative to the previous, expectation, the "shape" of the music around the consistent time intervals and how that changes over time. obviously this is all stuff that you dont need to understand why it works for it to work.

that expectation is important, within a track or further, even before a piece of a music starts playing (as in, the listeners will most always have some expectations based on their experience). but yeah, some drum breaks or fills are great because they subvert the main rhythm in some way, same for between portions of a track, etc. 

anyway, despite all my pseudo-philosophical bullshit above, i think studying drummers of all types is great and should help (specifically if you can find some interesting drummers discussing drum solos that might line up more with your concerns i think...you start to see how talented drummers can play with the listener's ears almost directly, how to keep a pulse while still going off in whatever ways, etc.)...but always be careful worrying too much about studying, that can sometimes be counterproductive for someone creating.

given you're probably writing electronic music it might be interesting/helpful to try and recreate some drum parts from a track or two that you feel are strong and you might start to tease out some why the original recording 'works' but your recreation will inevitably fall short/differ in key ways. the tones and mix and ultimately the drums within the context of the other elements of the track and everything sealed up together are most always what makes the 'drums' work. but it may inspire you to think differently at least for a bit and sometimes that can really be a key to turning a corner.

 

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an interesting aspect of rhythm is that it's the single most important component of music, by far. rhythm comes first, then comes melody, then harmony - which is just a fancy extension of melody. it doesn't matter what music genre we're talking about, as long as the rhythm makes sense, everything does (of course there are exceptions but they just prove the rule).

say you're a pianist and you're playing a bebop standard with a band. as long as your time is good and you groove hard with the rest of the band, you could play a bunch of random chords and notes and the result would still be great - in a weird/bonkers way, but great nonetheless. and the listeners would still connect with the music on a visceral level, no matter what, because the music would still make sense. whereas the opposite scenario cannot work: if you play the right notes and chords in the right order but your time sucks, i guarantee you that the resulting music will suck and the listeners won't connect with it. the same applies to pretty much any genre. 

 

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On 9/4/2021 at 11:07 PM, brian trageskin said:

it might sound silly but wikipedia is a pretty good ressource to learn the basics imo:  

I've read through these pages again, it's mostly just describing what different terminology means rather than how it "functions" or feels the way it does. I suppose maybe these things are too subjective and it's impossible to have explanations that are generalisable without being like those wikipedia pages but I have some faith that there is more to it on a fundamental level.

18 hours ago, auxien said:

ultimately i think the emotional/whatever response to rhythm is essentially the same thing that happens with melodies/etc. but the rhythms are just (usually) lacking much of the melodic tonality, etc...rhythms and melodies often are separate obv, but i think treating them differently isn't necessarily helpful on this topic: they're both mapping sounds in patterns over time, and every pattern before this moment is important in contextualizing the current/next moments for each listener (and each listener will obv have a different reaction in part bc of this!). it's all storytelling in some sense or another, but that's a digression probably....

Yeah I see melody and drum rhythm as the same in this way, I specify rhythm because that is the most fundamental thing I can think of that *is* music besides sound itself. I will look for some drumming content like you mentioned.

one of the most fundamental things seem to be constant timing(ignore fold4 wrap5...) that causes entrainment, which makes it so that successive bars / beats are heard relative to / in reference to previous ones, for example if you hear kik,rest,rest,snare and then kik,rest,snare,rest then the snare in the second bar will stand out as coming earlier that it did before.

I do wonder if these things can be explained in psychology terms, music is for interpretation by minds anyway

 

 

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19 hours ago, brian trageskin said:

say you're a pianist and you're playing a bebop standard with a band. as long as your time is good and you groove hard with the rest of the band, you could play a bunch of random chords and notes and the result would still be great - in a weird/bonkers way, but great nonetheless. and the listeners would still connect with the music on a visceral level, no matter what, because the music would still make sense. whereas the opposite scenario cannot work: if you play the right notes and chords in the right order but your time sucks, i guarantee you that the resulting music will suck and the listeners won't connect with it. the same applies to pretty much any genre. 

Yes. Here is a video where Ben Levin demonstrates the same thing on a guitar. He is playing wacky out of tune pitches but it still sounds like it makes sense because he has solid rhythm. This resembles Kurt Cobain's antisolos.
https://youtu.be/U77fhSExv9U?t=142

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2 hours ago, vkxwz said:

I've read through these pages again, it's mostly just describing what different terminology means rather than how it "functions" or feels the way it does. I suppose maybe these things are too subjective and it's impossible to have explanations that are generalisable without being like those wikipedia pages but I have some faith that there is more to it on a fundamental level.

rhythms feel the way they do precisely for the reasons explained in these wiki pages imo  :trollface:

at micro level (a bar), a rhythm feels a specific way depending on which beats are emphasized, subdivisions, time signatures, etc. at macro level (several bars or a whole tune), things like tension/resolution, variation (like artificialdisco said) even motivic development, play a role (hence the links about sections and song structure i posted).

then there's the ambiguity of what we're talking about: isolated drum parts or the rhythm produced by combining every instrument. which one is it? because with a funk groove for example, the way the rhythm feels has to do with how the instruments interact (each one emphasizing specific beats), not just the drums. 

33 minutes ago, ghsotword said:

Yes. Here is a video where Ben Levin demonstrates the same thing on a guitar. He is playing wacky out of tune pitches but it still sounds like it makes sense because he has solid rhythm. This resembles Kurt Cobain's antisolos.
https://youtu.be/U77fhSExv9U?t=142

haha, neat! 

in a similar way, guitarist wayne krantz has often used ring mod with his bands, with great results. which demonstrates that pitch really isn't as important as rhythm.

Edited by brian trageskin
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4 hours ago, vkxwz said:

Yeah I see melody and drum rhythm as the same in this way, I specify rhythm because that is the most fundamental thing I can think of that *is* music besides sound itself. I will look for some drumming content like you mentioned.

one of the most fundamental things seem to be constant timing(ignore fold4 wrap5...) that causes entrainment, which makes it so that successive bars / beats are heard relative to / in reference to previous ones, for example if you hear kik,rest,rest,snare and then kik,rest,snare,rest then the snare in the second bar will stand out as coming earlier that it did before.

I do wonder if these things can be explained in psychology terms, music is for interpretation by minds anyway

i'm no music historian, but in my understanding 'constant timing' seems to be more of a modern thing, at least as far as it being the norm. and even then, it's really only strongly adhered to in certain genres, and most likely only so ingrained in many because of recording technology. and i'm sure you know just slowing or speeding a song slightly can really effect the overall feel of it, even if it's compositionally the same otherwise...compounded further of course if being done so by human hands, as the performers could be influenced into playing slightly differently due to deviation from their own expectations.

the example you give of course only works in that sense, in that order! if you were to reverse the two bars, the snare would feel 'late' ...and hence the point you're making there, all music is dependent on what comes before it....but also it is sometimes contextualized greatly by what follows shortly after (or further after...i'm thinking here of a composer using a melody early in a song or a movement then revising/revisiting it later, that recognition of it later by listeners can re-contextualize the initial appearances of it...again, here we start getting into storytelling parallels...) so i guess ultimately what i'm saying is that is just inherent in music: one thing precedes the last, always. music is kind of magical in that sense, it's sculpting sound over time, and that aspect of time is always 100% the true medium musicians are working within. i'm not sure i can think of another type of art that so intricately tied to time itself.  (tho there are definitely sculptures, installations, etc that do present physical art that explores time as an integral component in some way, those generally tend to be a specific piece or a specific set of works by an artist). that's what i've always found so particularly transcendent about music, it's just playing with an (essentially) intangible property of matter (sound) related specifically to the most intangible property of our human experience (time).

again, sorry for the pseudo-philosophical bullshit, but i think that's the only place i can go when these sorts of conversation come up that prod at the basis of music itself (why does a rhythm create a certain feeling in a listener?). it's really hard to quantify, at least for me.

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12 hours ago, brian trageskin said:

at micro level (a bar), a rhythm feels a specific way depending on which beats are emphasized, subdivisions, time signatures, etc. at macro level (several bars or a whole tune), things like tension/resolution, variation (like artificialdisco said) even motivic development, play a role (hence the links about sections and song structure i posted).

Well yeah but you are just listing a bunch do things that do have an effect, just not why they have an effect

9 hours ago, auxien said:

i'm no music historian, but in my understanding 'constant timing' seems to be more of a modern thing, at least as far as it being the norm. and even then, it's really only strongly adhered to in certain genres, and most likely only so ingrained in many because of recording technology. and i'm sure you know just slowing or speeding a song slightly can really effect the overall feel of it, even if it's compositionally the same otherwise...compounded further of course if being done so by human hands, as the performers could be influenced into playing slightly differently due to deviation from their own expectations.

the example you give of course only works in that sense, in that order! if you were to reverse the two bars, the snare would feel 'late' ...and hence the point you're making there, all music is dependent on what comes before it....but also it is sometimes contextualized greatly by what follows shortly after (or further after...i'm thinking here of a composer using a melody early in a song or a movement then revising/revisiting it later, that recognition of it later by listeners can re-contextualize the initial appearances of it...again, here we start getting into storytelling parallels...) so i guess ultimately what i'm saying is that is just inherent in music: one thing precedes the last, always. music is kind of magical in that sense, it's sculpting sound over time, and that aspect of time is always 100% the true medium musicians are working within. i'm not sure i can think of another type of art that so intricately tied to time itself.  (tho there are definitely sculptures, installations, etc that do present physical art that explores time as an integral component in some way, those generally tend to be a specific piece or a specific set of works by an artist). that's what i've always found so particularly transcendent about music, it's just playing with an (essentially) intangible property of matter (sound) related specifically to the most intangible property of our human experience (time).

again, sorry for the pseudo-philosophical bullshit, but i think that's the only place i can go when these sorts of conversation come up that prod at the basis of music itself (why does a rhythm create a certain feeling in a listener?). it's really hard to quantify, at least for me.

Yeah I should have used better wording, having a pulse or beat may be a better way to say it, basically you can tap along to all music (except for very experimental stuff)

Yes I agree it's all about time and change of sound over time, but sound itself is change over time and bars are too just on a larger scale, so it's change of change over time if that makes sense? comparing one bar to the previous is comparing one sequence of change to another. I agree with you about story telling but I find it hard to conceptualise how to tell a story with that sort of structure. it's still a linear medium but the embeddedness makes it strange for telling a linear story, it's easy to do a linear progression of chords that each take up an equal amount of time and then interpret that as representing a sequence of moods that make up a story, but when it gets into the territory of stuff with repitition and modification for things that are repeated then it's harder to understand how.

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3 hours ago, vkxwz said:

Well yeah but you are just listing a bunch do things that do have an effect, just not why they have an effect

my guess is rhythm has a lot to do with pattern recognition.

say a tune starts with 2 bars that go like this: 4/4 beat at a specific tempo, kick on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, 8th notes on the hi-hat.

this beat already establishes a tempo, a specific kind of groove and a specific tradition attached to it. the listener is already expecting a few things to happen next: the tempo is probably gonna stay the same because that's what most tunes do and it's been steady so far, the rhythm is probably gonna keep going "down" on the strong beats and "up" on the weak beats, same for the subdivisions, the time signature, etc. and depending on the music genre, we can already expect these 2 bars to be followed by whatever this specific genre usually does in the next few bars, or to follow a specific song structure, etc. 

it's all pattern recognition. just like a melody in the first 2 bars of a tune can already establish a tuning system and a tonality. the listener is given clues as to what to expect next. if you struggle to understand how this all works at larger scales (more than a single bar), it might be because you haven't heard of the concept of call and response, among other things. correct me if i'm wrong. motives, development and such things are loosely based on the same principle, from what i understand.

again, there's other stuff at play that can explain how x rhythm = y emotional response, such as phrasing (as explained in the video that ghsotword posted), tempo or tension/resolution for example.

in short, =rhythm is no more mysterious than harmony, imho. since music can be understood as a language, with its vocabulary/syntax/etc, the equation x rhythm = y emotion isn't that hard to crack once you learn the language. imo. i hope this partly answers your question.

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i just realized i only explained in greater detail what OP already said when he mentioned repetition, bars in reference to previous ones and other stuff, lol. i also watched the video i posted (which i hadn't done) and it doesn't answer OP's question. 

why does x rhythm = y emotion? i don't know, neuroscience probably has an answer for that but i'm too lazy to look into it  :trollface: 

alright i'll fuck now.

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59 minutes ago, brian trageskin said:

i just realized i only explained in greater detail what OP already said when he mentioned repetition, bars in reference to previous ones and other stuff, lol. i also watched the video i posted (which i hadn't done) and it doesn't answer OP's question. 

why does x rhythm = y emotion? i don't know, neuroscience probably has an answer for that but i'm too lazy to look into it  :trollface: 

alright i'll fuck now.

What are you fucking Brian?

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7 hours ago, vkxwz said:

Yeah I should have used better wording, having a pulse or beat may be a better way to say it, basically you can tap along to all music (except for very experimental stuff)

Yes I agree it's all about time and change of sound over time, but sound itself is change over time and bars are too just on a larger scale, so it's change of change over time if that makes sense? comparing one bar to the previous is comparing one sequence of change to another. I agree with you about story telling but I find it hard to conceptualise how to tell a story with that sort of structure. it's still a linear medium but the embeddedness makes it strange for telling a linear story, it's easy to do a linear progression of chords that each take up an equal amount of time and then interpret that as representing a sequence of moods that make up a story, but when it gets into the territory of stuff with repitition and modification for things that are repeated then it's harder to understand how.

the rate of change over time, maybe? that's straying into calculus/physics territory there... anyway no need for that i think, as changes compounding upon changes can be quantified by any musician who has notated on a musical scale or piano-rolled on a DAW or sequenced into an x0x style sequencer can see. time signature change and then a few bars later there's a BPM change and also the drum pattern has had variations every bar and each drum hit is slightly changed in velocity and timbre, etc. that's just how music works.

i think you feel it's strange to tell a story with just rhythms because storytelling with rhythm alone is rarely (if ever?) done. rhythms without tonality can do plenty, for sure, but they're missing a lot of what appeals to a certain aspect of the human brain's interpretation of sound: humans seek out and respond to music's tonality because of its similarity to human voice and vocalizations of similar creatures (other mammals, our prey, our predators, etc). there are of course many types of human vocalizations and even some languages that aren't as dependent upon tonality as others, but i think by and large humans have tended towards vocalizations that have tone and often tones that change over time, similar to a note played on a guitar string being bent. (very simplified in many ways, i hope my point is coming across nonetheless)

a crash cymbal bashed loudly within the context of a symphony definitely contributes to the 'story' of that symphony...but played alone it's just a crash cymbal. and that exact cymbal played with the exact same strike but at a different moment in the same symphony much later may 'feel' more alarming, or more powerful, or whatever, because it's dependent upon the context of it within the music. playing a loud gong there, even if the same decibel volume, would elicit a different effect in most or all cases....because the instrument itself is different. replacing a pianist in a concerto with a guitarist playing the exact same score is going to give the composition something of a different effect. (edit: an A Minor chord can be super sad! but sitting at a piano or whatever and just playing an A Minor chord and literally nothing else....it's not necessarily terribly sad, or kinda sad, or aggressive, or anything. it might even feel happy!) it's all contextual to the moment and what came before, what's going on at the same time, and what comes after, and all based upon the tones and the experience of the listeners, etc.

i feel like i'm going around a bit and not explaining myself much if any better so i'll shut up for now...but ultimately i just think the premise is flawed in a way. rhythms alone only go so far and they don't as much compel emotions, at least certainly not in the same ways/to the same degree as tonally-focused compositions. 

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^i meant to emphasize with my third paragraph that there's no percussive analog to a minor chord or a such a thing as a sad drum beat. there's definitely drum beats in sad songs that can strongly support the sadness of the song, but alone? a sad drum beat just by itself? idk man, i don't think so tho. would be really really interested to hear counter examples to my hypothesis here (i should state that i'm mostly just blabbing out my thoughts with essentially no evidence other than personal research and experience. i don't even know the basics of music theory lol)

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On 9/4/2021 at 7:15 AM, vkxwz said:

After doing some pretty simple/shit composition for a few years now i've become very interested in how rhythm in music actually functions, ie why things sound the way they do, create the emotion they do, just from the structure of the rhythm. I have found very little information on this online, almost nothing beyond notation and some very simple stuff that isn't really explanatory.

Seems like almost everyone can come up with some decent sounding rhythms by following their intuition for what feels right, but I suspect most of this is similar to what GPT3 does, and you are just extending the track by predicting what should come next, and that prediction comes from all the music you have heard before, which to me sounds very limiting and uncreative in a way.

From what i've gathered the stuff thats important is: hearing one bar relative to the previous, expectation, the "shape" of the music around the consistent time intervals and how that changes over time. obviously this is all stuff that you dont need to understand why it works for it to work.

Does anyone:
A) know of any good resources for learning about this
B) have any theories of your own that you'd like to share

Sounds like you may want to look into Music Perception and Cognition. There's tons of academic articles and books to read; based on words you used in your post (e.g., emotion, expectation), some relevant MP&C topics are:

- auditory grouping / stream segregation

- expectation in musical listening

- perception of temporal patterns (in infancy, in adulthood etc)

- emotional experience of music

I could be well wrong, but from what I gather, unfortunately a large number of studies in this field are heavily based on/influenced by western classical music.

Worth mentioning is that one of the key texts in auditory grouping by Bregman ("Auditory Scene Analysis") is accompanied by audio examples; SND used one audio example as their opener for their FACT mag mix:

https://www.mixesdb.com/w/2011-08-19_-_snd_-_FACT_Mix_276

 

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7 hours ago, auxien said:

^i meant to emphasize with my third paragraph that there's no percussive analog to a minor chord or a such a thing as a sad drum beat. there's definitely drum beats in sad songs that can strongly support the sadness of the song, but alone? a sad drum beat just by itself?

lol

9 hours ago, auxien said:

but ultimately i just think the premise is flawed in a way. rhythms alone only go so far and they don't as much compel emotions, at least certainly not in the same ways/to the same degree as tonally-focused compositions. 

i agree. 

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                                                                      computerhythm

 

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