How Rhythm Shapes Our Lives

Imagine a metronome ticking around 144 beats per minute (bpm). Popular songs on this track include Blondie’s “Call Me”, The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” and The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. It’s a fast allegro to assess. Measured another way, these songs have about half a second between their beats. If we play a conga by itself at this rate and record brain waves in it, we’ll see the neural activity repeating itself every half second (boom, boom, boom, boom or “one, two, three, four”). But what does the brain do if you hear the conga playing a song that matches that beat?

The brain produces a new rhythm. In addition to a spike in response every half second (where musically speaking the “ones” are), you see another smaller spike halfway through (1 It is two It is 3 It is 4 It is; “FLEW FROM MI-AM-i BEACH”). The brain elaborated the strong/weak pairs that make up the meter of music.

This tells us that the brain drags and reinforces both the explicit and the implied rhythms in music. This extra rhythm in the brain wave does not occur when the music is deliberately out of line with the conga beat. A similar example of the brain creating a beat comes from Brainvolts alumnus Kimi Lee, who found that the fundamental frequency of an identical speech sound is enhanced when it occurs on “one” in a four-beat sequence. The sound mind’s response to a drumbeat is profoundly shaped by its auditory context. Rhythmic organization operates automatically when we hear the sound. If our rhythmic expectations are violated, our brains will behave differently because of our inherent internal sense of rhythm.

Rhythm Intelligences

Imagine the familiar rhythm “Shave and a haircut, two bits” and play it on a table with your finger. Did you knock seven times? Now imagine that again and put your foot down on it. Did you knock seven times again? Or less? For me, when I tap my finger on a table, I tap every note (ignoring rests). When I tap my foot or snap my finger along with the music, I usually tap or tap in the rhythm (or pulse) of the music, not every note. When I tap my finger on the table, hitting the “sounds” and ignoring the “silences”, I’m tapping rhythmic pattern – I’m keeping track of how long or short each note is and where the rests occur. When I tap my foot, I tap four times, to the bottom beat or pulsate (see rhythmic pattern below), which in this example includes a silent beat. Music has a pulse and rhythm pattern, noted by the time signature and note/rest durations, respectively.

Before I started studying rhythm, if you had asked me about the skills involved in hitting rhythmic patterns versus hitting off beat, I would have said, “You’re probably good at both or not so good at either.” If someone can play to a beat, they can also play to a rhythm pattern, right?

Wrong. There are multiple rhythmic intelligences. You cannot predict how someone will perform a rhythmic task by how they perform a different rhythmic task. This was first noticed in extreme cases where a brain-damaged person might be impaired in one type of rhythmic skill but not another. We have since learned that these distinctions are fundamental to how the system works: we see dissociations between rhythmic skills in all of us, confirming the idea that “rhythm” is not an all-or-nothing skill and, more intriguing, our proficiency in performing one type of rhythm or another depends on our language skills. Both pacing and pacing pattern skills predict language development and reading ability. However, only the rhythmic pattern skill has an influence on speech understanding in noise, as we will see below.

brain rhythms

Rhythm pattern skills are associated with slower brain rhythms (seconds), while keeping pace skills are associated with faster brain rhythms (milliseconds and microseconds). Phonemes, syllables and phrases range from microseconds to milliseconds and second beats, respectively. Brain rhythms can predict language development in babies and children. Brain rhythms can also determine a person’s strengths and bottlenecks related to language and the ability to understand an auditory scene while hearing in noise.

Children who recognize differences in rhythm patterns and tap into rhythm learn to read and spell more easily. Several keeping pace skills are impaired in older children with dyslexia. My own team found a link between keeping pace and language development in adolescents and children as young as three years old. What is the connection between rhythmic skills and what might seem like unrelated skills like reading and writing?

There really is rhythm in language beyond the rhyme of poetry. It is inherently a part of pronunciation. Rhythm is important, even in isolated words. “Engrave”, “contrast”, “design” and “produce” can be nouns or verbs, depending on which syllable is stressed. Current speech also has rhythm. A YouTube search for “knock to talk” will turn up some good examples – a personal favorite is the one with the scene from the Gene Wilder movie Willy Wonka. The video shows a drummer playing to the rhythm of the dialogue between Willy and Vovô Zé, so you don’t miss the rhythm of the speech.

Tabla player Zakir Hussain tells us that his father taught him to speak using drum rhythms when he was a baby. In the tabla, each finger is assigned a syllable and playing the tabla is similar to speaking in sentences. In all languages ​​there is a definite rhythmic aspect to spoken language, caused by changes in stress, duration and intonation of syllables. This was resoundingly brought home to me firsthand when Hussain accompanied me on the congas during a speech on rhythm and language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *