Music from different cultures demonstrates the profound imact that rhythm can have on us emotionally and, in shamanic traditions, spiritually. Drums are the most universal instrument, occurring in nearly all cultures and in the majority of world music. However, drums in music are often working on a different level within us from the melody of a song. Drums speak in phrases, seldom longer than a few seconds. They are the graphed out dimension of time against which the spatial dimension of melody can be measured and shaped. When used to accompany other instruments, drums are like a monk in the corner reciting a mantra of pace.

There are two fundamental ways that we respond to rhythm. First is in a visceral sense, feeling the drum. Japanese Taiko and Eisa use such large drums that the impact of the sound striking our chest reverberates in our lungs. This can resemble the sensation of a pounding heart, permitting the music to simulate a sensation of excitement within our bodies. Brazilian and African traditions use drums with a softer sound. But no matter what kind of drum is used, we often identify with rhythm in music because of its kinesthetic effect in our bodies. Drums are a tool to create mandatory audience participation through sensation.

However, it is not just the volume of beats that makes the difference between relaxing, entrancing rhythms and exciting, alerting rhythms. Rather it is the placement of beats within the rhythm cycle that is the most important factor in their effect. This is the logical component of our experience of music that I would like to focus on.

The cycle is an idea that our minds impose when we encounter a string of beats. Our logic, being hungry for patterns, tries to ferret out structural beginnings and endings of ambiguous sounds. We then feel an unconscious comfort and even delight when we lock onto a structure that our minds can synchronize with and follow.

Essential to all rhythm is the idea of a loop, a measure of an interval of time that is intuited by the listener as a complete section. Any sound or string of beats, if it is repeated, becomes a rhythm to our ears. Our minds then interpret shapes that are created between measures, transcending and yet unifying different beat phrases. Once these beats have been established in place over a few musical phrases, our minds can then follow them, come to rely on their presence, and in turn our minds are effected when their placement is shifted. Our sense of comfort in the comprehended phrase can be manipulated because of our habit of predicting the future occurrence of the beats. It is as if we are hypnotized, lulled into acceptance of the existence of beats in specific places almost as if they were tangible objects that were present in the world. The musician uses the manipulation of beats like a hypnotist to effect our reactions once we have excepted the initial exposition. Our minds are taken hostage by this focus on the shapes that musicians create with their instruments. Subconsciously we are forced to dance by our identification with these shapes and directions that are created through their repetition and slight alteration.

The up/down sensation that our minds impose on the rhythm loop is the means by which we sense the shapes. There is essentially no up nor down inherent in the music, but this is the way our minds understand the rhythm structure, like the hand of a clock moving around a dial. The way in which these spatial sensations are created is by building relationships through specific distances and clusterings between specific beats over multiple phrases. A regular march beat moves us little because it births no shapes that we can identify with. Because it is just a routine measurement of interval it suggests to us the idea of walking. Once beats in a phrase become lopsided, emphasizing certain parts of a phrase over others, we start to get a sense of shape. Our bodies will want to lean in one direction or another as we hear the beat lean within the phrase.  We are responding to a metaphorical heaviness that is caused by beats being focused close to what our minds interpret as a down beat. Then we can feel uplifted and light when beats in a phrase are placed near what our minds interpret to be an up beat.

Indian rhythm uses the logical structure of the beat cycles to elicit audience engagement and involvement. Tabla and other featured instruments (sitar, sarangi, sarod, etc.) start from a basic Tal, rhythm cycle, and then separate into divergent rhythms in the improvisation only to merge once again on a Sam (pronounced "sum"), or zero beat, causing audiences to erupt in applause at their comprehension of the merged union of the different cycles. The musicians deliberately lose each other and walk separate paths with their different rhythms, then come together again like reunited travelers. The audience participates by listening for the common denominators in the rhythms and shares in the discovery when the Sam beat for the different rhythms near each other and then merge. The Sam beat gives us a sense of home, a resting spot where each new journey and variation will embark from.

Structures are set up within the rhythm phrase to suggest subdivisions of usually two, three or four beats. However, some cultures create asymetrical beat structures like six beat rhythms in Korean Poongmul, ten beats in Indian tabla. Tabla rhythms have some of the longest rhythm cycles ranging up to 16 beats. Though some of these 16 beat rhythms may seem to be just a multiplication of the a basic four beat theme, others have little internal symetry and the pattern can only be comprehended once the entire cycle is played.

In Korean and Indian drumming styles, the five, seven and ten beat rhythms throw off our mental assumptions of symetry which are based on two and four beat cycles. These assymetrical rhythms demonstrate something interesting, the sensation that they create of a driving forward momentum may be caused by the sense of skipping over the expected beats. This is similar to the momentum felt in the three-beat waltz. Apparent in these rhythms is that the last beats of the phrase are often emphasized on the upbeat creating a kind of freefall toward the first downbeat. I like to call these beats "deconstructing" because they serve to trigger the end of the phrase and serve as an introduction to the birth of a new phrase. Becoming familiar with these deconstructing beats in larger cycles can make the ear accute to pick up the same type of momentum building beats that function within more conventional four beat "common time" music.

Rhythm is most engaging when it keeps us guessing, or when it keeps us falling forward with anticipation of the Sam beat. It is the imbalanced rhythm that makes our bodies sway in sympathy. It is the complex and elusive Tals that keep us engaged by forcing us to guess where they are going to go with their Sam beats. Because of this, we can look at drums as an instrument of surprise and doubt. We are taken away from the Sam beat, adventures away from home, then we are returned. Each measure is a departure from the familar beat, into the exploratory realm of the mid-measure, through the climax, and then anticipation to the return home.

We entrust ourselves to the hypnotic power of the musician to take us into a realm where we identify bodily with beats and then volunteer to be maneuvered by our sympathetic resonance with those beats. The musician gives us something familiar and then plays a tug-of-war with our expectations of what will happen with that familiarity. Our assurance is that wherever we go, we will never be far from home.


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