Rhythm and expectation

Christopher Witulski

Part 3: Feeling the beat(s) Back to contents References

Part 4: Consistent inconsistencies from Morocco

As mentioned in the opening of this series, one of my main goals here is to disassociate widely used terminology from an exclusive understanding based in western classical music and its associated system of written symbols.1 Rhythm is central to music worldwide, even in contexts where it is important in absentia like free rhythm improvisations. It is difficult to imagine music that does not incorporate a sense of passing time. Even where that might be possible, it is likely to work by breaking expectations.

The exclusive association of ideas like beat and meter to western systems has a secondary impact: it leads analysts to consider all music from a perspective that adheres to western traditions. Using three examples from my own research in Morocco, I aim to demonstrate how centering experience and perception and decentering prescriptive conceptions of musical elements brings about new ideas of how music works.2

Uneven beats

Two of these three examples come from the hamadsha tradition. The hamadsha brotherhood is a Muslim Sufi group, which means that they regularly gather to perform and participate in sung devotional poetry. Unlike some other Sufi brotherhoods, the hamadsha are organized as professional ensembles who visit client houses to chant and sing poetry along with instrumental accompaniment. They are closely linked to the figure of Aisha, a spirit who possesses some individuals. The ritual healing ceremony is not an exorcism. One of its goals is the maintenance of the relationship between Aisha and her host body. The musicians and their ceremony help the client to appease Aisha through chanting, prayer, singing, a trance possession “dance,” and the ritual sacrifice of animals like chickens and goats.3

An evening hamadsha event moves through a number of segments, each with its own musical characteristics. One, called the saf al-ginbri features an underlying rhythmic pattern of uneven heavy beats. This pattern is also common elsewhere in the world, including the Balkan region of Europe and across the Middle East (Goldberg 2020). This example is from a ceremony I attended with the hamadsha leader Abdderrahim Amrani.

A western system would define this as a 5/8 meter by focusing on the consistent pulse. In practice, however, this is felt at the larger grouping of one short beat (subdivided in half) and one that is slightly longer (made up of three subdivisions). Is it a consistently uneven pulse (which would be consistent in its own way) or is this an example of two smaller groupings combining?

I argue that there is no “correct” way to hear this. The western notational practice of calling something like this 5/8 (five even beats grouped into two and three), however, obfuscates what we hear by prioritizing written convenience. It fits better into a system built for western classical tradition that way.

Shrinking beats

A second pattern is both more complicated from the perspective of western musical systems and far simpler when understood on its own terms. It comes from another Moroccan ritual healing ceremony that is part of the gnawa tradition. This music is widely associated with Morocco’s history of slavery and the sub-Saharan Africans who were forcibly brought to the country across the Sahara from West Africa. This ritual also serves to heal clients by repairing the relationship between them and possessing spirits, but here Aisha is just one of many. As with the hamadsha, the ceremony moves through various segments. These are associated with specific colors (black, white, blue, and so on) that identify individual spirits or sets of spirits who might possess the client. The music of each segment is specific to that spirit, but it is more broadly similar throughout the evening than the more varied music that animates the hamadsha ceremony.

Gnawa music uses three types of instruments. A single low bass string instrument called a hajhuj, ginbri, or sintir is at its core. This is the only melodic instrument that accompanies singing. A large drum called a tbal appears in certain places. Of interest here, though, are the quraqib, sets of iron castanets that beat out consistent rhythmic patterns throughout most of the overnight ceremony.

Quraqib, as demonstrated by members of Mʿallem Said Oughessal's gnawa troupe during the opening parade of the 2018 Essaouira gnawa and world music festival

Most individual songs in gnawa music start slowly and get faster as the trance intensifies.4 This example—and many similar instances of speeding up gradually that happen across the globe—is different than most western instances where, for example, acceleration may happen at the end of a piece to build excitement. When it does happen in western traditions, the internal subdivision pacing increases with the speed of the beats. This maintains the relationships between them (at least roughly). A duple subdivision usually stays duple.

At higher speeds, it can get hard to maintain the pace of subdivisions simply because shorter notes get too fast to play. This pacing issue is simply accepted and normalized in gnawa music. The pattern that starts a piece gets so fast that the musicians “even out” the distance between the subdivisions. Mathematical ratios are less important than the intensity of the experience. A gradual moves happens where a feeling of a duple subdivision shifts into a triple one as longer notes shorten. This example, whch was played by Abderrahim Abderrazak, my teacher during my fieldwork in Fez, Morocco, shows the progression. Skip around the entire track and listen for the difference between the rhythmic pacing of the beginning and the end.

This example lets you change the pacing yourself. You can see how it goes from feeling like an even duple subdivision to a triple one as you shorten the first note in the pattern. That also quickens the looping repetitions.

Western notation easily represents the duple subdivision of the beginning and triple of the ending, but the gradual change throughout the song means that most of what brings a person into trance cannot be so easily written down. The subdivision relationships here are not a result of a larger conceptual framework. They come from a group of people who are playing as fast and intensely as they can so that their music will invite a spirit into the room and heal a listener. In this way, what we hear reflects a specific set of priorities.

Poetic license

The final rhythm I present here animates two different segments of the hamadsha brotherhood’s ritual. Al-unasa al-saghira comes first and features this pattern articulated with clapping. Al-unsasa al-kabira returns later in the evening and uses drums. Both segments focus on sung devotional poetry that aligns with a rhythmic pattern of five beats (or five claps) that can be loosely described as short, long, short, short, long.

One of the core assumptions about rhythm in western-centric systems of understanding is that the pulse is made up of evenly-spaced beats.5 In fact, this pattern can be mathematically broken down and written in western notation. The “long” beats are equal to three halves of the short beats, as demonstrated by this example’s added imaginary pulse.6

Imagining this pattern as comprised of twelve beats makes it easy to create groupings of two and three. This aligns with the first hamadsha rhythm that I introduced earlier. It fits into western notation (using quarter notes and dotted quarter notes), but I argue that it fails to account for the clearly-defined nature of how these rhythms are articulated and perceived.

An example of a common variant that ornaments this pattern shows that this even pulse does not represent how the rhythm works in practice. Abderrahim Amrani and Fredrick Calmus, members of the brotherhood I worked with most closely, taught me this drum pattern that organizes and underlies the entire poetic segment of the ritual.

There are two characteristics of this poetic accompaniment that are noteworthy here. First, the beat or pulse is consistent in that it repeats over and over again, but not every beat within it is the same duration. Second, the subdivision stays duple (beats are divided in two) whether the beat is short or long. This makes some subdivisions longer and some shorter.

Perhaps this is an example of syncopation, discussed earlier. If we understand the subdivision to be consistent and even (as done in the above example), then the drum strokes that divide the long spaces are syncopated. They are between beats.

This pattern repeats over and over throughout the long poetic recitation, however. While it may feel syncopated at first, the listener grows accustomed to its asymmetry. If we allow for a pulse of uneven beats (some long and some short) with subdivisions that divide them in half instead of mathematically attempting to fit this into a structural conceptualization designed for a different set of musical traditions, then we can more closely approximate what is happening. This may sound syncopated to you. Or you might hear it as regular and expected, despite its unevenness. The point is not that one is correct: we all hear and feel music differently. Instead, the point is that we do not need to prioritize western-centric tools that might not fit the job. Try listening to the last example again and let it loop for a while. See if it starts to “sink in” over time and feel different.

Up until now, I have been using electronically created beats to demonstrate this pattern. In practice, however, there is an additional nuance. The last beat of the cycle is late. This is an example of microtiming, similar to Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man.” This subtle play with time that can build and release tension happens in every iteration of the pattern. It becomes a core part, though the amount of delay is open for exciting interpretation.


This set of short essays considers rhythm from the perspective of expectation and ambiguity. Music is something that we feel as much as we hear. It impacts us, in part, through how we sense it, not just how we hear or think about it. Rhythm works, in part, by organizing time. This final section demonstrates how we experience and understand rhythmic ambiguity and how common “rules” and western classical music-oriented understanding of rhythm can be reductive, failing to illuminate how we feel music.

Music and musicians set up and break down listener expectation in innovative ways and these dramatically change how we experience music. Like so many other things, music lives in systems that we internalize, but, as I hope is clear through these essays, it is at its best when we understand that the rules of those systems are made to be broken.

Part 3: Feeling the beat(s) Back to contents References

  1. The symbols that I refer to here include “standard” notation. These systems and the organizational logics that underpin them can influence many musical activities, including pedagogy/teaching and analysis/transcription. Transcription is the act of notating sounds and, while it often refers to writing out spoken words (transcribing language), it can also involve using some notational system to transfer music into a static and written form. It can be a powerful tool for preserving music, as demonstrated by composers “notating” their musical ideas for the convenience of performers, and musical analysis. 

  2. While my research was ethnographic fieldwork over roughly three years in Morocco, these observations are my own. I hope to take the ideas I present here back to Morocco and make them central to interviews and conversations to see whether they are shared by Moroccans who live these musical traditions. This is methodologically difficult in part because the terminologies used by musicians trained in western systems (wherever they might live and work) do not always align with how listeners talk about music. 

  3. For more detail on the hamadsha and their ritual ceremony, see Witulski 2019. 

  4. If using western terminology, the speed would be referred to with the term tempo

  5. There are some common exceptions, including when the tempo changes. The tempo is the rate of passing beats or the speed of the underlying pulse. When it increases, beats will “speed up” and the time between them gets shorter. 

  6. Alternatively, these embedded examples can be understood as alternative forms of notation. While the long and short bars that represent the notes ignore much of what western notation includes, they show duration more intuitively (in some ways). Notation itself is an effort to foreground certain elements of sound that are deemed important by composers, researchers, listeners, performers, and so on. Alternative notation is common in all forms of music, including western classical music, where the work of John Cage, George Crumb, and Krzysztof Penderecki include commonly taught examples. Creating your own form of graphic representation of sound (notation) is a useful exercise for understanding how these decisions and priorities play out in practice.