Composers Thoughts on Craft- On Rhythm

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Rhythm is the foundation of life just as much as is harmony, but maybe more so. Everything is an oscillation, a vibration a periodic cyclic recurrence when it comes to life on Earth and indeed to the life of stars existing within the greater cosmos. The Earth passes around the sun in its 365 ¼ day planetary rhythm. The moon around the Earth in it’s  regular 29 day orbit. The Solar system the larger vault of the heavens and the galactic center in a 25, 920 year cycle. Both plants, animals and people have their bio rhythms, circadian rhythms, hormonal rhythms, heartbeat and brainwave state rhythms which pertain to various activity and expressive states. Rhythm is integral to life. Rhythm is an expression of the dao. It is the expression of these synodic and interplanetary rhythms  that influence and effect the expression of all life on earth. We are inherently in tune with the rhythms of life to a greater or lesser degree,  the only impediments come from the realm of mind, habit and now technology (with the changing and manipulating of biorhythms  etc).


Rhythm is the foundation for life. Rhythm is the expression of the dynamic tensions of time and the play of organized forces contributing to form. In music it is expressed by both melodic and percussive instruments, in fact all instrumentation must confirm to it as the prime organising factor. One could say rhythm is the scaffolding for time, as music is a river of sound experience and perception expressed through time. I say to my students that rhythm is the bedrock upon which melody stands and is allowed to flow as the river of time.

I find it near impossible to divorce music from the fundamental expression of life. Music is a product of the physical universe which depends upon the earth realm and the medium of air or water to propagate and the hearing apparatus to perceive it. Yet even beyond that the vibrations which become music, the frequency or wave expressions, can still be issued forth. Would it still be music if we could not hear it? Is  a cosmic waveform from a distant star music when transposed up octaves? Does the passage of the clouds in the sky qualify as an inherent earthly rhythm, as an expression of the planetary breath cyclic from ocean to land, to ocean, to land, over and over. Without this one essential rhythm there would be no life on Earth.


Please join us at Call of The Forest   Australian premiere showing a fundraiser for the preservation of  Equadors Endangered  Rainforest- where we unite to creatively assist the most bio-diverse region on Earth and belatedly celebrate Earth day 2018. I will be performing 2 songs and presenting some poetry. For more info go to event link

The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music defines, “rhythm (in the full sense of the word) covers everything pertaining to the time aspect of music as distinct from the aspect of pitch, i.e. it includes the effects of beats, accents, measures, grouping of notes into beats, grouping of beats into measures, groupings of measures into phrases, etc. When all of these factors are judiciously treated by the performer (with due regularity yet with artistic purpose – an effect of forward movement- and not of machine like accuracy) we feel and say that the performer possesses a sense of rhythm’. There may be ‘free’ or ‘strict’ rhythm (Kennedy 1996, pp. 604–605).

In teaching it is important to make it as embodied as possible. For without a clear felt sense and a strong developed internal sense, playing loses it’s efficacy and leads to criticism and lack on confidence in ability. Yet it is important to distinguish. We are not machines but living beings, with periodic fluctuations in rhythm being semi normal. We can only express what we can embody, and we do that musically though the expression of tempo and beat with our limbs.  Rhythm does not come easily to everyone, yet can be nurtured and developed.

I like to make the kids march and use all their limbs to get a sense of rhythmic time and appreciation for theory. Movement is a great way to embody rhythm. In fact in music therapy rhythmic gait regulation is a prime mode of rehabilitation post stroke and serious neurological damage. Neuroscience will tell us that it is all about pathways and synapses which can be developed and strengthened. In terms of performance,  muscle memory is another factor. In older cultures and music making traditions such as various African or Indian tribal cultures, rhythms and polyrhythms, are taught and learnt  by modelling and observation/imitation. A slow process of what we could call hard wiring, as we forge the pathways throughout brain and body.



I can express rhythm much better on a guitar than I can keyboard. I can program it on a keyboard and play parts in to midi but cannot play multiple rhythms/ melodies with both hands very well at the same time at all. That requires highly developed skill that I was not taught (how I wish I had been). I will plod on.




Beat– Beat is the sub unit like the atoms of the molecule. They get grouped together to create grander structures of time. They are expressed differently on various instruments. They can be accented, syncopated and expressed in novel ways. They can be rigidly enforced or freely expressed. They mimic the pulse of the human heartbeat, the Italians expressing the alternation of such in fancy terms which introduces us to tempo. Music production technologies now days enable us to have sculpting precision to the 64th or even 128th beat. Yet how much of that is discernible to the lay folk or even relevant?

Time Signature– Gives us the groove, the raft the feel, the 24 34 44 54 68 etc, the grouping of beats into measures to a set count. Literally the signature of time expression and accentuation! Time signature is all about the metre. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music expresses the definition of metre as the “regular succession of rhythmical impulses…. metre  being considered as the basic pulse and rhythm as the actual time patterns of the notes within a measure” (Kennedy 1996, p. 475).

Sometimes I don’t even realise I am playing in a different time signature for example 3 4 or 6 8, it is just more about feel when improvising or getting the melody out of the head accurately. It can be tricky when at the computer in a recording session when one starts working on a new track and are not consciously realising that one is in a different time signature or even when time signatures have changed within a piece. I am encountering this within the Call of Oma album composing sessions. Of course, when working with machines one has to set tempo marking or b.p.m and time signature so the grid for any potential quantizing function is accurate. I tend not to use quantise that much. I am a human not a machine. I will hand edit meticulously   the notes /rhythm within a tracks instrumentation and let my ears and eyes guide me as to the rhythmic and melodic interplay of instruments and timbres within a piece. I am fond of syncopation before or after the beat so that is something one has to manually do and not often across all instrument tracks in a given piece. Again it is a feel thing, a body thing a preference.

Here is a link to a favourite track from my second year of my diploma Screen composition class. The  second half was written for this class, to the Tom Cruise War of the World movie beginning. It half  embodies time signature change, the first piece where I realised that is what was happening after countless trying to make stuff fit. Some things can be written to a click track some not..

Tempo– Tempo is an interesting creature for effect. It can do great things as far as the human biorhythm and states of consciousness is concerned and I tend to opt for moderate tempo. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece is and as hinted at before, the Italians used the human heartbeat as a guide to setting tempo terms. It is the measure of being. In this current mechanisation of music era, many music’s are being created with tempos that are downright dangerous to life and can cause cardiac arrhythmias and other problems, as they cause forced entrainment & induce stress, triggering the fight flight response. I am fiercely passionate about ethical use of music/ sound, it is part of my life obsession and work. To make conscious the responsibility we have to the listener /audience in  creating works where they gift us their attention and listen/ experience  our music as a pleasure- not a pain. I have written other articles about this before. I tend to work within the 80-130 maximum 140 b.p.m range. It depends on the intention of the music and the capacity to play it. Tempo is a big factor in influence of technique and rhythmic phrasing. What is possible at slower tempos might not be at faster tempos, so it is important to remember human limits when working within the electronic domain. I prefer to do so, to emulate as much as possible with sampled choices, what  is possible ,not what is not (i.e. machine like).

It is the ghost that controls the machine, remember it, do not let the machine become master!

Measure- In essence the bar, small measure of musical time.

CONTEMPLATING BUDDHA- Was composed with timing considerations to match the pulse of the oceans- the great in breath and out breath of the planetary boddhisatva.


Phrase– Phrase is where all the groovy stuff goes, phrases are the short passages, where we encounter the repetitions and variations of musical rhythm and melody. Sometimes 4 bars sometimes more, often uttered by singers in one breath. They are where we embody the expression of motifs and signature riffs or melodic and rhythmic content. Open to individual interpretation and expression they make the music juicy. You can have the same phrase expressed by many different people but the magic will be in the performer and performance. Whether lyrical, rhythmic or melodic, how we phrase also relates to our experience of and expression of our primary language and relationships in life. We learn so much about phrasing through our family and culture of origin and the use of the human voice, with all its inflections and tonal variations and shades of light dark and all in between. So in essence the phrase is the small sound bites, the chunks that can be broken down into their constituent elements if we so desire.




Rhythm is where a lot of the soul from music comes from. There are as many expressions of rhythm as there are genres of music and they vary as much as the compositions themselves. There are formal rules, then there is breaking them, but even when broken, aspects of  structure still remain. We can not completely break away from it.

I spoke before in the Composers Thoughts On Craft Series in both  ‘On Melody’ and ‘On Harmony’ about how The Call of Oma is expressing universal themes and relationships and is also an expression of cosmic rhythms and the nature of time. It is taking us into the distant past, into the procession of the equinox cycle, a solar systemic rhythm, concurrent with  aspects expressed of geological time and cataclysmic earth sciences. It is taking us into the breath of life and death and extinction level events through musical storytelling. It is a big concept. I keep saying I don’t know if I can do it. I am due to sit for a composing session later today or tomorrow. At present I am only finding so many hours a week. These articles are taking a few hours to write and the video for my email subscribers takes time to film and edit. I want to be more specific there. I have only made one video so far.

With this Composers Thought on Craft Series- ‘On Rhythm’ I hope to share thoughts which might make you reflect on rhythm in a different way and to understand  the larger relational aspects of rhythm within the planetary biosphere which are integral to right relationship. Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Naht Hahn calls it ‘Interbeing’. Rhythm is an expression of interbeing. I invite you to explore  rhythm in a different way and to consider the larger body of life and the  gift we have in being alive to dwell within such a miraculous mystery, that is the universe. For rhythm is inherently linked to both physical, psychological and ecological health. Till next time- from ‘ On Rhythm to ‘On Form’.

With love and in relation Catherine Meeson

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Kennedy, M 1996, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.




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