Rhythm and expectation

Christopher Witulski

Part 1: Expectation and repetition Part 3: Feeling the beat(s)

Part 2: Cycles of time

We can divide time into pieces, both small and large. Seconds or minutes move quickly when compared to hours, days, and weeks. We can count seconds, but feel hours passing differently. We generally use sleep to mark days and weather can tell us about passing months or years. The same is true for music. While writing music down on paper forces us to measure things in certain ways, those methods are not always aligned with how we sense sound’s temporal momentum.

Most musics around the world, including many European and American styles, use rhythmic cycles to orient the listener. The rock beat from earlier shows this: within much popular music, the cyclic repetitions provide momentum and stability while the subtle variations (like those in the dance club) manipulate that stability to create anticipation. This is one reason why popular music can be criticized as “mechanical” (see Adorno 1990[1941], for an example), but it’s also one of the reasons why it is accessible and engaging.1

These cycles even have names: a high school jazz band percussionist may get sheet music with a small label in the upper left hand corner that says “samba,” “funk,” “rock,” or “bossa nova.” These terms refer to adaptable patterns that the player can learn. They play this cyclic pattern (“lay down the beat,” perhaps) and provide a foundation for the rest of the ensemble. The player is not a machine, though. She will incorporate nuances and changes to match other things that are happening across the ensemble or to toy with the energy level of the performance. The pattern is simply a skeletal guide, a starting place.2

In many Middle Eastern musical styles, these patterns have similar names, each with its own history, appropriate place, and connotation. Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays describe many of them in Inside Arab Music, but they also outline a selection on their website: maqamworld.com. These patterns, collectively called iqa’at, are made of up two general types of drum strokes (or other sounds): dum signifies a lower, heavier sound while tek is usually higher or lighter. Maqamworld.com uses the letters D and T to show these, with S signifying a pause or silence. Take a moment to listen to the ways in which some of these cycles work in different pieces: the iqa’ called maqsum is a popular one to start with. The examples for ayyoub show a huge diversity of stylistic range within one pattern. Some, like zaffa are specifically linked to certain traditions, in this case a wedding procession, even though they now appear in other styles and contexts. Listening to a symphony orchestra presenting popular music, as when a group like Black Violin incorporates hip hop beats into classical chamber music contexts, gives an idea of how a rhythmic pattern (a funky hip hop beat) can hold its identity in a seemingly unrelated context (the classical music hall).

Layers of interaction

Cyclic rhythmic patterns can grow and adapt in many ways. One is through improvisation: a musician can subtly change the placement of certain sounds, add new ones, or remove a few parts of the rhythm to regulate energy. “Regulate” sounds so sterile, it’s about getting a crowd hype or making them hold their collective breath in anticipation. Groups of people can work together to do the same. If you have ever clapped along to a piece or changed how you move your feet while dancing, you were co-creating a pattern. This happens when, at a concert, everyone starts jumping together or swaying from side to side, cell phone flashlights held high. Rhythm can draw people in and unite them in a common musical experience.

Another form of adaptation is layering. A technical term for a repeating rhythmic pattern is an ostinato. When one of these ostinatos (rhythmic cycles) appears alongside another, they can combine to create something identifiably new. This is how a drum set works. A pattern on a bass drum appears alongside a second one on a snare drum, perhaps a third on a high hat cymbal, and others on floor toms, larger cymbals, or other instruments to create an intricate groove.

A simple example from my own research in Morocco demonstrates this well (Witulski 2019). This is a pattern that appears in much popular music, but I crossed paths with it when researching a sacred ritual tradition as practiced by the ʿissawa brotherhood.3 It is part of a religious healing ceremony that involves prayer, possession trance, devotional singing, and plenty of dancing for fun. This rhythm animates the moments where the musical ensemble invites laughter and popular religious songs into the long night’s event. It also appears in a tradition of sung poetry called malhun that includes both “sacred” texts and “secular” ones (Magidow 2016).

In ʿissawa contexts, musicians articulate this pattern on a pair of clay drums that are tied together. Some artists have switched from these traditional drums, however, to use manufactured timbales. In both cases, a larger and smaller drum makes two distinct sounds: one is lower and the other is higher. In malhun, different musicians each have small handheld goblet-shaped drums. Each one, called a tarʿija has a slightly different sound because of the natural fish-skin head. This video shows another brotherhood, the hamadsha, who borrow from both of these styles within their own ceremony. I recorded this in Meknes in 2013. The group is led by Abderrahim Amrani and features a guest, Mohammad Essousi, who is a prominent malhun singer.

In this example, drums and clapping articulate two main rhythmic patterns. The first is two notes, equally spaced. The second is offset and the notes are unequally spaced. They are layered to build a new pattern, one that is coincidentally similar to reggaeton’s dembow.

Combining the two patterns changes the overall rhythmic cycle’s feel. They integrate into a single idea, yet people still clap along to one pattern or the other, as in the video. Try identifying and clapping the distinct patterns when listening to the two of them together, then mute each and try to clap the other. It may be easier to go back to the video and clap along with the musicians.

These are mechanical examples produced by a computer. The real participants in the video changed the patterns in other ways, as well. For one, it is common to speed up when approaching the climactic ending of a section of poetry. As they accelerate, musicians subtly adjust the relationships between the two patterns. They might make the last note of the second pattern louder to push listeners back to the beginning of the cycle. When I am at a ceremony or concert, I can feel this rushed anticipation in my body. They might squeeze the two middle notes, which are already close together, even tighter to excite the music further. We turn toward these details next.

Part 1: Expectation and repetition Part 3: Feeling the beat(s)

  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.