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Rhythm: A Universal Paradigm

I am fascinated by rhythm. After all, I am a professional musician. However, it might be surprising to know that rhythm is inscribed on the DNA of every living thing; animal, plant and even has a role in the creation of inanimate objects such as rocks, sand, and human-made things.

Certainly, the most basic component of music is rhythm. This is one of the universal truths that shape each of our lives and plays a part in everything there is. You might argue that you are not at all musical; a misstatement if ever there was one. The misunderstanding concerns a true understanding of the term music. It is true that humans have great diversity in their perception of music and there are as many levels of expertise as there are people (and animals, and plants–you get the idea). My point is at the most basic elemental level, we are all born into a world of music.

Early in the twentieth century, musicologists (musicians who study the science, history and physical nature of music) started to develop an awareness of the importance of the music produced by indigenous cultures throughout the world, a study that encompasses every conceivable genre of making music. The work of these early pioneers formed the nucleus of a new branch of musical study, Ethno-Musicology. With the wisdom of hindsight, it seems intuitive that such a discipline would be an important part of the concept of music. This was not the case and it meant that except for a few lonely people who devoted their lives to studying “primitive” music, any study of indigenous music or folk-music was thought a waste of time and effort. How little we knew. . .how little we know.

Today, we understand that much of the music once considered “primitive,” can be and often is highly sophisticated and intricately conceived, even by today’s standard. The musical equivalent of the atom, e.g. the smallest component of an element, is rhythm. In our zeal to westernize other people and races to our culture, our religion, our customs, we refused to listen and failed to hear the music that was part of each culture we attempted to civilize. Some of the most intricate rhythmical sets are heard in the remotest part of the globe; in Africa and in China. How arrogant we have been and are in our assumption that nothing of lasting value could have come from primitive cultures, perhaps with a tiny blind spot that homo sapiens first emerged in Africa. Oops, we’ll have to give them that!

Satire aside, second to rhythm, the human voice is the second building block forming the DNA of music. These two components in infinite simplicity and infinite complexity were evident from the dawn of human history. The sceptic thinks that rhythm (remember, the atom of music) is of no consequence in our (their!) lives. In fact, the first music any human or animal encounters in the mother’s womb, is her heartbeat. So, from conception, we are comforted by this steady rhythm and often by the mother’s singing. Some recent scholarship points to a higher IQ in children in the mother’s womb, who are regularly exposed to classical music and the mother’s singing. It’s called The Mozart Effect.

The animal world is much the same in making music, albeit with a different method of producing it. First, they heard mother’s heartbeat, then they live and move in regular cycles; the rhythmical croaking of frogs around a pond on a warm summer’s night; the intricate rhythm and melody heard in the songs of birds. Many composers have used the infinite and intricate note and rhythmical patterns of bird calls as the basis of their compositions. This included the music of the late French composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). He composed for various musical media although he is most remembered as an organist and a composer of music for the organ. He is but one of hundreds who have found their musical inspiration in the natural world.

So, music is part of the fabric that defines life. Whether we acknowledge it or not, everyone and everything is musical on some level. Some people are moved to tap into this music of the spheres, defined as a perfectly harmonious music, inaudible on the earth, thought by Pythagoras and later classical and medieval philosophers to be produced by the movement of celestial bodies.

So, keep in step, go with the flow, find comfort in the regular or follow the beat of a different drummer. But do it with a little more understanding of how we are all musical and on a lifelong quest to be in harmony with the unique rhythm of life. . . .by Mark Scott, January 2011

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