Rhythm and expectation

Christopher Witulski

Back to contents Part 2: Cycles of time

Part 1: Expectation and repetition

So much of music is about expectation. People who make music set these up by working within and against what a listener is expecting, which is, in turn, based on shared experience. The result is a series of common practices or loose guidelines that are commonly called “rules.” Much of music’s excitement, confusion, surprise—the richness that makes it fulfilling in so many ways—derives from how it satisfies or transgresses our expectations.

Familiarity, unfamiliarity, and repetition

While rhythm is an integral part of all music, it is often foregrounded in discussions of drumming or percussion. Depending on your musical experiences and expectations—what you listen to—a drumming pattern can be confusing, boring, groovy, exciting, and so on. Here is a common rock beat. Thanks to the globalizing tendencies of the music industry, this is a familiar sound for many people across the world.

Many different things combine to determine how you might hear and feel this pattern. Here are some examples:

Familiarity: If you have heard certain types of popular music before, then this pattern may sound familiar. That does not mean that you have words to describe it or have ever listened and said “Oh, I know that drum pattern, I’ve heard it before!” This is an example of how things like globalization, memory, nostalgia, and culture play out in listening. If someone remembers her parents listening to a certain artist or type of music (like 1950s country, the band Blood, Sweat, and Tears, or 1980s hip hop, for example), then similar little moments in something that is new to her can bring back old emotions or memories. For country, a guitar picking technique might trigger a memory. Brass instruments like the trumpet and trombone in a rock band might take her back to Blood, Sweat, and Tears. “Old school” beat samples may draw out ’80s hip hop. It is nearly impossible to talk about music without these memories and experiences. The hard part, of course, is that we all live different lives. Therefore, when we hear something new (or old), we hear it differently. Even if it’s a supposedly “simple” rock beat.

Unfamiliarity: If you have no expectations—maybe because something you hear, see, or taste is brand new to you—it’s really hard to guess what is coming next. But we only have to wait a moment to find out. With visual art that is static (like a painting), we might take our time and look more closely at details. We return to what we saw and think about it differently. Music vanishes into the air as soon as we hear it. We are left with memories of the sound and of how our bodies reacted to it. Maybe we danced and felt the movement. Perhaps we are at a loud live concert where we were pushed around by the sound waves. I still remember the sensation of how the heavy drums at a Lenny Kravitz concert physically shoved my guts to the back of my ribcage when I was in high school.

Repetition: If the sound repeats, then it is easier to find a pattern and build an expectation. Of course, it also sets us up as listeners to be surprised when the repetition ends. And some patterns show themselves to us more quickly: that, again, is based on what we have heard before.

In the case of the example above, the pattern is broadly (but not universally) familiar. It’s also repetitive over a short cycle, a single iteration. Cycles can be measured in different ways. A composer scoring a film might be thinking in terms of seconds or milliseconds to line up the sound and the video. It is more common, though, to refer to an internal pulse called a beat. That word gets used in many other ways, though, and we’ll leave it for now and come back to it later.

Organizing time

That earlier pattern is fairly simple (which doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting or full of potential creativity). More intricate patterns with less regular internal relationships can make it harder to grasp what’s happening at first. More significantly, however, is the fact that there is no single way to hear or feel rhythm, let alone music. Here is an example from a family of common rhythmic cycles that are common in African diasporic traditions, especially in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. It usually gets played on an instrument that is loud and clear, since musicians use the pattern to hold everything else together. A bell of some sort or the clave, a pair of sticks, are common instruments to use. This particular variation is sometimes called the rumba clave after the Cuban rumba (see Moore 2010).

Go back and listen to that again, but try and clap along this time. Just see if you can work it out. It might be hard, it might be easy. Where does the cycle start? Can you hear the point where it repeats?

Really, listen again and try clapping or tapping along. Then try to stomp or say “Top” at the beginning of each cycle. Once you do, or you find yourself sufficiently lost, click the button below to show the next paragraphs.

I tried, really! Let me keep reading

Back to contents Part 2: Cycles of time


  1. Western classical music, as it is often taught in schools, focuses on grouping smaller divisions of time to create measures, also called bars. The divisions are called beats, not to be confused with the beat (of, say, a pop tune).

  2. This way of thinking about how to organize time in music differs from how rhythm and a concept called meter are taught in many music classrooms. Where the approach I describe here follows the way people make, listen to, and feel music in many contexts across the world (including in Europe and the United States and in classical music traditions), the teaching of rhythm and meter often focuses on quasi-mathematical procedures that relate to written musical notation. In practice, both in western educational systems and elsewhere, rhythm is taught verbally, using syllables. One example that demonstrates how an unwritten educational system can represent complex rhythms uses syllables like “takadimi” to connect and divide rhythms within Hindustani music’s tala system. For more on this particular practice, see chapter 4 of George Rucker’s Music in North India (2011). Notation is important for a number of reasons, but there is much that it does not represent well, including nuances in rhythm that change the “feel” of a pattern. Furthermore, centering a specific type of notation and transcription can inadvertently reinforce problematic ideologies (see Marian-Bălaşa 2005). As seen in the maqamworld.com examples that follow, musicians across the world use western notational techniques as a tool to represent sound, but they recognize its failures and it rarely shows up as a performance tool. This, again, is true in “the west”: innumerable outstanding musicians never needed to learn to read music to wield it powerfully. Notation is an abstraction that can serve a purpose (namely, it can preserve and transmit some elements of sound for distribution, analysis, or similar goals). Also relevant is the fact that there are many other representational systems available to musicians and listeners, not only the one that has roots in European classical traditions (see Killick 2020 for one example).

  3. In this case, the term “brotherhood” refers to the all male musical ensembles who carry out ritual ceremonies. The events themselves are usually open to client families (who require healing through sacred blessing) and their friends.

  4. When preparing this, I did a quick search in Spotify for "reggaeton" and found a mix of songs from 2020. Almost every one of them had the dembow rhythm featured prominently in the mix.