Tag Archives: Rhythm


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause identifies two categories of organism-derived sounds: biophony, sounds created by non-human animals, and anthropophony, sounds produced by human beings. Some of these sounds are “musical” in the inclusive sense of displaying structured and intentional patterns that unfold over time. Precisely which sounds fit under this broad definition is debatable. However, on a basic level, we are intuitively attentive to musical sounds around us, both creaturely and human-made. What is perhaps less obvious—and more fundamental—is the extent to which our sense of music is physiologically derived.

This anthropogenic (human-born) appreciation centers on two essential musical elements: rhythm and melody. Both originate with inborn “instruments.” Heartbeats and breathing lay the foundations of rhythm. The voice sets the template for melody. As individuals mature and cultures progress, these internal mechanisms are translated into external instruments, which are themselves imitations and expansions of the organ-instruments within.

Rhythmic awareness begins in the womb. The underlying neural structures of hearing develop early in utero. By the end of the third trimester, a fetus can distinguish a wide range of frequencies. This includes her own heart rate, which beats 120 to 160 times per minute, and her mother’s, which beats 60 to 80 times per minute. When the infant is born, the tempo of breathing is added to the mix. As the child develops, rhythmic exposure and experimentation are diversified: rocking, clapping, banging, shaking, walking, stomping, dancing. It is no coincidence that excited music is fast-paced, mimicking quick breaths and heartbeats, while relaxed music is slow-paced, mimicking calm breaths and heartbeats. Techno, dirges, marches, meditations, and all manner of musical styles play off these natural rhythms.

Similarly with melody. The mother’s voice, which also resonates in the womb, is our first introduction to melodic patterns. Newborns show a preference for music (organized sound) over noise (confused sound), and for vocal music over instruments. Mothers instinctively communicate through “motherese”—high-pitched, sliding, infant-directed intonations—which, through exaggeration, reinforces characteristics of the native language. The infant, in turn, babbles in language-patterned speech-song long before she can form words. These verbal and verbal-imitative vocables set the framework of melody, both sung and instrumental. In every culture, melody is deeply rooted in the phrasing, inflections, and articulations of the spoken vernacular.

We cannot escape the physiological/anthropogenic basis of music perception and production. Rhythmic and melodic sense are born with us. Our heart, breath, and voice invariably inform which sounds—human and non-human—we hear as music, and which ones we do not.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


The Rhythm of Survival

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Of all the elements of music, rhythm and tempo are the most fundamental and most attractive to the human senses. Without thinking, we synchronize body movements to beats inferred from sound patterns, and know precisely when to begin, end, speed up or slow down with the music. Regular isochronous pulses effect a variety of physical responses, from toe tapping and hand clapping to marching and dancing. Beat-based rhythm processing, or beat induction, is a cognitive skill we do not share with other primates (and is perhaps only shared with certain  parrots). It is the basis of our ability to create and appreciate music, and is among the instincts that make us human.

The urge to synchronize to external rhythm is present from the first stages of human development. A recent study of 120 small children, aged five months to two years, confirms what has long been assumed: we are born with a predisposition to move to musical rhythm. According to University of York psychologist Marcel Zentner, who worked on the study, “it is the beat rather than other features of the music, such as the melody, that produces the response in infants.”

Biomusicological reactions occur naturally in small children; they are not learned or imitative behaviors. During the experiment, each child sat on a parent’s lap. The parent was instructed to stay still and was given headphones to block out sound. The child, who was fully exposed to the music, freely waved her arms, hands, legs and feet, and swayed her head and torso from side to side. Intriguingly, too, the child responded to the music with greater consistency and enthusiasm than when she was addressed by her parent’s voice.

While the study records an innate proclivity for rhythmic incitement, researchers are left to speculate why this tendency evolved. One possibility comes from evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania. In his book, Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution (2011), Jordania proposes that early human survival was aided by attaining a collective state known as the “battle trance.” Our ancestors were too slow, weak and timid to face predators or enemies on their own. They needed to band together, and would do so through ceremonial drumming and dancing. After several hours of ritual performance, participants entered an altered state where they did not know fear, were immune to pain, acted as a single unit and were ready to sacrifice their lives for the community. Repetitive beats and movements brought them to entrainment, wherein self-awareness dissipated into unified thought and collective action.

If Jordania’s adroit analysis is correct (either in whole or in part), then the spontaneity with which we react to rhythm can be traced to natural selection. Groups best adept at orchestrating rhythmic rituals had the best chances of survival in a harsh and dangerous world. This impulse eventually became ingrained in our species. Though our existence no longer depends on it, we intuitively move to the beat from cradle to grave.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.