Rhythm and Groove: An Interdisciplinary Literature Review
The purpose of this interdisciplinary literature review is to examine the current research on the subtleties of rhythm from different perspectives. This review will draw from the research of ethnomusicology, music perception, psychoacoustics, psychology, neuroscience, electrical engineering, and music education. This paper will provide an overview of rhythmic notation, ethnomusicology, music cognition, music technology, and music teaching & learning as they pertain to complex topics such as meter, subdivision, polyrhythm, stylistic nuance, and groove.
Music notation is not meant to be an exact dictation of rhythm, but rather an approximation or interpretation of what one hears or wants another musician to perform. Since humans are not machines, it is impossible to play every note perfectly even, so human performances have some slight variation in temporal accuracy. Human-performed rhythms have natural fluctuations and do not always align with a metronome, particularly the inner beats. Even though rigorous practice is required to achieve near-perfect timing and rhythm, some music is expected to be played uneven and imperfect. Musical interpretation involves accents, dynamics, and purposeful tempo fluctuations that are often not written down. Musicians in a large ensemble are also required to adapt their time to that of the conductor’s baton.
Temporal expectancies occur when one’s brain decomposes a pattern, however complex, and looks for the same or similar pattern in the near future (Desain, 1992). With these expectations, we can decipher rhythm, tempo, and meter. Our brains do this automatically to the extent where we try and create patterns where none may exist, such as looking at random numbers or abstract art (Potter, Fenwick, Abecasis, & Brochard, 2008).
Rhythm is important because our brains are hardwired to respond and synchronize with rhythmic patterns (Thaut et al. 2009). Our brains’ motor control functions naturally respond to temporal structures, especially when the listener consciously monitors a rhythm. This explains why humans naturally tap their foot or finger, nod their head, or sway back and forth when listening to music.
Our brains have trouble separating all the layers that we hear from complex rhythms and meters. We have the ability to focus on one sound or rhythmic sequence at a time and ignore all other sounds by treating them like “noise.” This process, called selective masking, is similar to when one can block out the sound of an air conditioner whirring in the background and focus on only the person speaking in the room. Another way we decipher complex sounds is by creating a composite pattern that combines all of the layers that are similar (Poudrier & Repp, 2013).
Music is filled with natural rhythmic imperfections that are often desireable within a style. A jazz swing feel can change depending on tempo, style, and performer. A standard jazz swing pattern is notated as a dotted-eighth sixteenth, a triplet, or as eighth-notes, when in practice, it is constantly fluctuating and lies somewhere in between those rhythms. In 16th Century French Baroque music, this swing feel is known as notes inégales.
Music Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data does not contain or produce any sound, but is rather a roadmap of when, where, and how notes from a synthesizer or sampler should be played. There have been many advancements made in varying the samples used including round robin sampling, articulations, ambience, instrument noises like key clicks and buzzing sounds, and performance analysis to account for pull-offs or alternate strings. Quantization is when notes, either MIDI or digital audio, are snapped to a metronomic grid with standard subdivisions. Groove quantization occurs when those notes are moved to a template that differs from the metronome. The templates can be made from a human performance or by manually moving each subdivision within a measure. This allows MIDI data to be played behind the beat or ahead of the beat on purpose to imitate the temporal qualities of a human performance.
It is possible that the advancements made programming a computer how to adjust time between the beats can influence how music educators teach rhythmic accuracy. Subdivision is discussed regularly in classrooms, but not necessarily how to control it and apply that subtleness to musical performance, especially in different styles of music. The better we can understand our brain and how it processes and perceives rhythm, the better software we can program in the future that can then assist us in the future of music creation and education.
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