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Unread March 16th, 2006, 04:51 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Posts: 271
Default Who's got rhythm and where did they get it?

OK Tom, get ready for it - just kidding.

What you are talking about is something that I have also spent a lot of time wondering about. I mentioned previously that I am a musician. I have always been fascinated by both African and S. American rhythm which is very much associated with black culture and originated in Africa.

Rhythm is the foundation of all music. I sometimes see tone and timbre and voice, melody and harmony, as just embellishments, ways to decorate a really cool rhythm. Some of my students have had the problem of approaching music tonally - and never seeing the rhythm under that music. Until they can start over - and first develop a sense of rhythm - and then lay their melodies on top of that - they'll be stuck in the rut of only making sounds and not music.

My theory on this (that has no real reason to be correct other than my intuition) is that rhythm is closely associated with speech in our brains. Some languages are more rhythmic than others and people that speak more rhythmic languages constantly exercise their sense of rhythm when the speak. So from an early age they will tend to have music (and dance) that is more complex rhythmically and where rhythm is a more significant component.

An aside: For many years scholars tried to analyze the drum message codes of some African tribes. Finally they discovered that the drums were replicating the rhythm of common spoken phrases in their languages. For people who speak rhythmically, the drums are almost as good a standing next to the speaker.

When African slaves came to America they didn't just learn English - they naturally put it to the rhythm that they used to speak their native language. That speaking rhythm has persisted in black American culture except for those blacks who have consciously suppressed it or were raised without it. As you know, today hip-hop and rap is a very popular form of black rhythmic/verbal musical communication (that turns off most older whites - but kids are picking up on it).

Another aside: I used to work with a black man who I sensed wanted to succeed in white culture. He claimed not to have any sense of rhythm and said that it was a cultural myth that blacks had more rhythm than whites.

So, here's the question:

Do blacks typically have more rhythm than you and I do (I'm guessing you're not black) and if so, is this cultural or genetic? If it is genetic, then I wonder what happened in those successive waves of homo-sapien northern and eastern migrations that caused the loss of that genetic rhythmic influence.

Or, is it just cultural and any non-black exposed to rhythmic speech patterns (and music) from an early age can do it. From all the white folks I know who do bluegrass and old-time fiddle tunes (very much white music) I'd say that a strong case can be made for culture. (Mark O'Conner, Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenburg, Edger Meyer, Mike Marshall, Laurie Lewis, Alyson Kraus, Alison Brown, etc. - these folks all have what I'd call an extremely well developed sense for complex rhythm.)

Then there's the old-time music of the likes of the Carter family. They'd purposely add a beat here or take one out there to make a tune crooked. That way when you were listening to it on the radio you'd be a bit startled - like, what was that? And you'd remember to listen to them again when the Grand Ole Opry was on. But it takes a very good sense of rhythm to pull that off and not crash - which I often do when I try to emulate them

Or, is it simply environmental? Do hot climates just make better dancers?

What do you think?

Margaret

PS - I just happened to think about Norwegian folk music. That's some of the most rhythmically complex stuff I have ever heard - and it developed over the centuries in the far north. On second thought, maybe it's not so complex just wierd. Anyway, I can't follow it.

PPS - It would seem to me that if this was genetic, then black children might show some difficulty learning to speak non-rhythmically when raised in that language environment. Or at least they might try to impose rhythm of some type on whatever non-rhythmic language they might learn. The opposite might be true for white children raised in a rhythmic speaking environment. I have never heard of anything like this happening (except for Steve Martin in the Jerk .

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; March 16th, 2006 at 09:26 PM.
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