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A Studio Symposium On Rhythm

The Student entered the music room with hasty strides; he seemed perturbed.
The Pianist looked up from the Brahms Capriccio she was silently memorizing.
"I wish you would tell me what rhythm means, exactly,' he said; "my professor has just said I haven't a proper sense of it, because I didn't play this Chopin Impromptu to suit him."
"Lavignac says, 'We cannot produce correct rhythm without playing in strict time.' Can you do it? Do you use the metronome when you practice?"
"Very seldom; my professor doesn't think much of the metronome, says it will make me mechanical."
"I don't agree with him; you must be able to play in strict time before you can deviate, from it. One should know all kinds of note values before attempting a piece like that Impromptu you are doing. Why don't you begin now and use the metronome, practice one, two, three, four, six, any number of notes to the beat? Then play more notes in one hand than in the other, say two notes against three and three against four. These things can't be learned in pieces; they have to be thoroughly studied by themselves. I speak from experience. I used to think I could learn such things in the pieces themselves, but found out my mistake."
"You are wandering away from the question," said the Teacher, joining in the conversation. "The Student asked what is the meaning of rhythm. A good definition of rhythm is not easy to find. The word comes from the Greek term rhuthmos, to flow, as in cadence, measure, number—like the foot in poetry. Mr. Mathews hit the nail on the head when he defined rhythm as 'measured flow.'"
"Would it not be helpful to get as many definitions as we can for this word?" said the Student.
"Rhythm is a much overworked word, it seems to me," said the Teacher; "most people think they know precisely what it means, but they often use it where they should say accent, pulsation, measure or meter. No doubt rhythm was the first element of music; it is more potent than melody or harmony and plays a greater role. If music lacks rhythm it becomes only a collection of sounds without form. It is like scattering dabs of paint promiscuously over your canvas; they will not make a picture."
"The impressionists think they will," said the Pianist, slyly.
"One writer has well described rhythm," continued the Teacher, "as the grouping of sounds with reference to their duration and accent, indicated by the number of notes of similar character in one measure. There is a fundamental rhythmic pulsation which goes through the piece; it is like the beating of the human pulse."
"I don't quite agree to the second half of that definition you quote," put in the Student; "that 'rhythm is indicated by the number of notes of similar character in one measure.' How will that apply when there are notes of various values in the measure?"
"There can be one rhythm of the melody, for instance, and another for the accompaniment, but they must both agree in accent; the rhythmic pulsation holds them together. This pulsation is generally expressed by the accompaniment—think of the accompaniment of the waltz."
"That is where the rhythm of motion comes in," said the Classic Dancer, who had been listening attentively; "think how much more vital the rhythm of the music becomes when accentuated by the pulsating motions of the body; there you have the 'measured flow' of the melody combined with the poetry of motion."
"Ah, the poetry of motion," said the Poet, advancing from the corner of the salon; "it is the rhythm of Nature. The trees at night express it as they wave their branches against the moon-lighted sky. The stars move to the rhythm of the Infinite, the sea voices it ceaselessly, the very air about us is vibrant——"
"With what Debussy calls 'the rustlings of the air,' " finished the Pianist.
"I love to think the world of men and things is working, thinking, doing to the measure of infinite rhythm," went on the Poet, "and that we can be, we are, in harmony with it all. If our heart throbs in sympathy with all that is good and true we can find the true ring in the beat of the ocean on the shore, the rustling of leaves on the trees, the hum of insects, the patter of raindrops on the roof or of little feet upon the stair—all, all are full of rhythmic life."
"That is what Chopin meant in his D flat Prelude, when he indicated, by the rhythmical reiterated notes, continual pulsation, like rain dropping," said the Pianist.
The Pianist sat down and played:
"I am glad you are coming back to something a little more tangible," said the Student. "The rhythm, or beat, of that Prelude you speak of is easy enough, but its the fussy little uneven rhythms—those twos against threes and threes against fours and fours against six—that try the souls of us; the harder I try to understand the subject, the further away I seem to get from the correct solution."
"The reason is that you are thinking of the concrete subject of rhythm in general, and not enough of its application to your Impromptu," the Pianist looked wise. "As I said before, one has to make a special study—technical study—of rhythm, from the simplest forms up before one can cope with any of these things in pieces. But here comes the Master, he can make things clear to us."
"I happened to overhear your discussion," said the Master, "and as the subject has always been a vital one with me, I could not help joining your group. The Student here wants a definition. Webster defines rhythm, in the widest sense, as 'a dividing into short portions by regular succession of accents,' or 'movements in musical time with periodical recurrence of accent.' In other words, rhythm is the meter of music. To be very exact, we can take a number of notes of equal length, and, by giving an emphasis to every second, third or fourth, the music will be in the 'rhythm' of two, three or four. We can then take several of these groups, or rather measures, and, by special accents, group them in the same way as we did the single notes, and the term 'rhythm' is applied to this grouping also. 'Time' would be a better word to use in the first instance, and 'accent' in the second—still the term rhythm is generally accepted for both."
"Would you give us a definition for meter?" asked the Student.
"That is a subject which all musicians should study, it is indispensable; pianists should know something about it as well as singers. For as the rhythm of poetry is measured by syllables and feet, so is that of music by beats and bars. All the meters most common in poetry have been used in music, sometimes in their strictest form, but often with far greater variety than is allowable in verse. If you have a practical working knowledge of the laws of poetical meter, of the long and short syllables and their combinations, you can analyze your melodies, your phrases and periods intelligently. Great composers have known and felt these laws, and thus their subjects can be reduced to metrical feet. If we know how to examine any really fine musical work, we will be convinced of the truth of this statement. Therefore, I would advise you all to study up the subject of poetical meter, learn the names and signs of the principal meters, and then apply them to your Mozart and Beethoven themes, and you will play them much more intelligently, besides finding a new delight in the analysis. This is a fascinating topic, and holds great interest for the serious student. With a technic well developed, and a mind trained to analyze the general form of the compositions, its rhythm, accent, meter, together with its thematic and lyric qualities, and, above all, its intellectual and spiritual content, one can hope to bring out the composer's ideas with success.
"Perhaps few of us realize how much rhythm enters into every thing we do, in our walking, talking, in fact, into all our movements. The longer I live the more I insist on regular and exact timekeeping, with much use of the metronome. Correct rhythm must become a part of one's inner consciousness. Why is it that so many young pianists find it such a difficult thing to play with an orchestra? It is because their sense of rhythm is defective—they cannot play in time, and the conductor has no end of trouble with them. Train up a child in the rhythm in which he should go, and when he is grown, he will at least be able to play in correct time, which is a great thing, after all. Time and rhythm are among the strict essentials of musical art; therefore, with all your study, see that you do not neglect these things. For only with systematic attention to all such important details can you hope to become thoroughly finished musicians."

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You are reading A Studio Symposium On Rhythm from the August, 1910 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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