Rhythm and music

In contrast to research in anthropology and human interaction, where entrainment, rhythm, and synchrony vary in how they are used depending on the specific discipline, in music there seem to be more consistent distinctions made between these terms.

Justin London (2004 p. 4) defines rhythm as ‘involving patterns of duration that are phenomenally (in our perception) present in the music, and these patterns are often referred to as rhythmic groups. Meter, which is a component of rhythm, involves our initial perception as well as subsequent anticipation of a series of beats that we abstract from the rhythmic surface of the music as it unfolds in time. In psychological terms, rhythm involves the structure of the temporal stimulus, whilst meter involves our perception and cognition of such stimuli.’ From an embodied perspective, Vijay Iyer defines rhythm as related to human motion, and meter to the regularity of human motion (Iyer 2002 p. 394).

Himberg describes rhythm as being in the notes, and meter as the psychological or architectural structure, the grid of stronger and weaker beats and higher and lower levels of metrical regularity that helps us perceive music. He gives the example of how a body can move in synchrony with the music played on a CD, two people dancing to that music are perhaps synchronized with the beat of that music, and their movements are entrained to each other. The meter of the music is embodied in them, in that their feet move to each beat, whilst their bodies twist and turn every two beats or every four beats (Toiviainen et al. 2010). In addition to synchronizing to these different metrical levels, they might display movements in the rhythm of the music, or their bodies move in rhythms in response to the music or each other. These rhythms in movement might be the signature three claps of cha cha cha or something else. When a jazz singer sings ‘I’ve got rhythm’, they mean something else. They probably mean that they have got an excellent sense of meter and that they are able to align the rhythms of their note onsets with the underlying metrical grid in such a way that it generates a sense of movement in the listener and a pleasurable, positive affect in the audience, in response to their performance.