Rhythms are Boring; Rhythm Is Fascinating

spiralWhat do students learn about rhythm? Mostly these things, which are all essentials:

  • Rhythm (in most music…) is based on a series of steady “beats,” which are somehow organized into metric patterns (duple or triple, simple or compound, and so forth) based on surface patterns in the music.
  • Musical notes indicate relative duration: a whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight eighth notes, and so on.
  • These notes may be organized to “play nicely” with the meter, or to “rub against” it, which would indicate a “pick-up,” a syncopation, or something called hemiola. Students should be able to define hemiola once and are not asked about it after their second week of school until the third semester, in which they will point it out in music by Brahms.

But that’s pretty much where rhythm ends in textbooks. Steven Laitz goes a little further by writing a few paragraphs on what makes rhythm… well… what makes rhythm. There is harmonic rhythm (patterns made from when harmony moves from chord to chord), there is change of musical patterning, and a few others based on changes in texture, dynamics, and register. It’s accompanied by a confusing diagram of eight bars from a Mozart sonata.

Mean Mister Mustard has something to say

Mean Mister Mustard has to be one of the goofiest Beatles songs, but it’s a great example of how something that sounds simple at first can reveal a wealth of perspectives on rhythmic hierarchy. It’s enough to just look at the first phrase.

I’ve omitted the time signature so students can help me figure it out (no one has ever gotten this wrong — it’s 4/4, which is clear from the “oom-pah” bass and generic rock drum beat). On the page, the music looks extremely rhythmically simple, with nothing but quarter notes and eighth notes. Adding bar lines and a time signature shows how “neatly” these notes fit in the meter.

But what other rhythmic patterns can we discover if we look beyond the meter? There are some interesting ones. What if we just look at the duration of gestures? This is one form of what Laitz calls changes of musical patterning. It’s easy to see that the gestures line up in groups of three beats that don’t align with the strong beats of the bar.

The “trying to save paper” part doesn’t quite work the same as the previous ones because it doesn’t follow the same three-note descending pattern; it is just a sort of “remainder” to finish the phrase. It does, however, last three beats. This is a sort of polyrhythm embedded in a single line of melody. Polyrhythms are commonly understood as two conflicting rhythms being played simultaneously, but this is something more subtle — the rhythmic “conflict” of melodic gestures against the overall meter. A more precise term for this is hemiola (for more on hemiola, visit this “exhibit” of the Museum of Rhythmic Oddities), in which musical patterns “contradict” the meter by forming groupings of other lengths. Hemiola is a form of polyrhythm, which is important to note since other groupings in this melody don’t form such neat groups of three beats.

Another “hidden” rhythmic pattern is brought out by the top notes of the melodic gestures. These are part of the melodic structure a stepwise pattern found in non-consecutive notes.

Notice that these top pitches are made prominent by the lyric since the text divides into small units: the name “Mean Mister Mustard” (also combined with alliteration), the action “sleeps in the park,” and the other action “shaves in the dark.” The last unit is emphasized by completing the rhyme “shaves/saves.” As numbered above, this forms a polyrhythmic conflict with the meter in uneven numbers of beats (3+3+4+2+the 4-beat rest before the next phrase begins).

An aside: I shy away from text “analysis” because I want to emphasize that, in music theory, we learn how to analyze music-as-music rather than music as a servant of words. That’s something great about this song: the words are meaningless garbage, yet they are very “musical” in how they form rhythmic patterns.

Astute listeners will also notice that, while these patterns start on the highest pitch of each gesture, the more “important” pitches of each gesture are the lowest ones. In this way, each gesture forms a little “countdown” to lead to the important lowest pitches, which in turn form a very satisfying progression from the third degree of the scale down to the first.

This is especially nice to observe because it brings to light another grouping — that the first two bars of the phrase are “active” ones that move downward, and the last two bars as “restful” ones that dwell on the note E (arching away and back to it) before resting.

Gary, Indiana and Fascinating Rhythm

Two other great tunes that I like to analyze for this topic are Gary, Indiana from The Music Man (Meredith Willson) and Fascinating Rhythm (George and Ira Gershwin). They have terrific interest for the clear way in which odd-length music gestures form polyrhythmic mis-alignments with the underlying meter. In both cases, the lyrics help to clarify rhythmic complexities and give a chance to discuss the music with non-majors or music majors. Both would be good entry-points to The Museum of Rhythmic Oddities!

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