Rhythm, Language, and Human Nature (Chapter 5)

Music is, by nature, imaginative and emotional. As listeners, there is an expectation that music should make us feel something. However, one question that seems to be at the center of many debates is the origin of music. Aniruddh Patel observes that on popular idea is “that human minds have been shaped by natural selection for music.” (Patel 99) In the aforementioned essay, the authors ask a very pointed question: “Is musical rhythm an offshoot of linguistic rhythm?” (Patel 99) The question seems to be whether or not music and the spoken word draw from the same patterns, or cadences. First, as a musician, I would like to state that I believe there is a strong relationship between music and the spoken word. From my experience with music, I know that the manner in which sheet music, piano scores especially, are broken into pieces. In that vein, I would like to draw a parallel. Consider the spoken word for a moment. There are a myriad of pieces, but a few generalizations can be drawn that bridge the language barrier. First, there are individual words. Second, there are phrases. These phrases combine to form sentences, which in turn form paragraphs which tell a story. In music, there are similar pieces. The sheet music is comprised of beats. Rests and tones arranged together form measures, which are the equivalent of phrases in the spoken language. Those measures come together to form passages, which work together to make up the entire score.

On a more scientific scale, musical rhythm is connected to speech through the arrangement of patterns and beats. (Patel 99) Mark Steedman also notes that people have a tendency to agree about rhythm (1). He offers the example of a room filled with people dancing, “[the people] will not only show their agreement as to which notes fall on the beat. They will also show in their dancing that they understand the beats to be grouped . . . and be similarly unanimous as to where the first, accented beat of every group occurs.” (Steedman 1) This is curious, as, to me, this seems to emphasize the willingness of humans to group and follow one another. It could be interesting to extend this research to the manner in which humans act as herd animals (and possibly relevant to the novel). This willingness and seemingly innate ability to synchronize oneself to music may been entirely relevant, as Patel goes on to discuss the fact that human beings are capable of predicting the beat (100). According to Patel, humans “can focus their expectancies on periodicities at different . . .  levels in music.” (100) The same article cites this as the reason that there is an inclination to move with the beat, and “move slightly ahead of the actual beat.” (Patel 100) Patel refers to this ability to synchronize oneself with a beat or rhythm as “beat perception and synchronization.” (100) Patel’s essay continues on to address the idea of innate beat perception, but my interest was piqued by the idea that humans have a natural inclination to recognize rhythm.

In a study by Jessica Grahn and James Rowe, the idea of beat perception was explored in an experiment. Grahn notes that, in order to best identify a beat or rhythm, “several cues are used, usually involving accents.” (7540) Grahn hypothesized that there would be a positive correlation between musical training and beat recognition. (7541) However, the findings of the study showed that “whether musically trained or not, beat perception occurs spontaneously in most people without great effort.” (7547) The fact that the study found there was no real difference between musicians and non-musicians reinforces the idea that the ability to recognize rhythm is universal – an ability that bridges cultures and languages to bring the entire world together. While Grahn suggests that “musicians’ ability to organize . . . and anticipate onsets may be superior to that of nonmusicians.” (7547) It is worth noting that this does not mean that nonmusicians cannot recognize these patterns. I might guess that the reason musicians would have an easier time predicting patterns in rhythm is the extensive training they have had in music.

I think that the next step in this piece of research would be to investigate the links between cultural music, and the ways that different cultures have different ideals of musical talent. I think that the extension of this concept, the universal nature of music, could inform an even deeper aspect of the intercultural relationships in the world.

Works Cited

Patel, Aniruddh D. “Musical Rhythm, Linguistic Rhythm, and Human Evolution.” Music Perception: An          Interdisciplinary Journal 24.1 (September 2006): pp. 99-104. JSTOR. Web. 28 September 2015.

Steedman, Mark J. “The Perception of Musical Rhythm and Metre.” Perception 6.5 (October 1977): pp.            555-569. Sage Journals. Web. 29 September 2015.

Grahn, Jessica A. and James B. Rowe. “Feeling the Beat: Premoter and Striatal Interactions in Musicians and Nonmusicians during Beat Perceptions.” The Journal of Neuroscience. 29.23 (June 2009): pp. 7540-7548. Society for Neuroscience. Web. 29 September 2015.

–Sara Laudeman


One thought on “Rhythm, Language, and Human Nature (Chapter 5)

  1. sariegel says:

    As I said in class, it sounds to me as though you are searching for a definition of what defines beauty, both universally and in reference to culture, in relation to patterns. This thread to your research is really exciting, especially as it could demonstrate that math is not only a tool to help us understand the world we live in but also is inherent to natural and perceived beauty. I have had this personal philosophy for years.

    You discuss the relation of musical rhythm to linguistic rhythm, which makes me visualize poetry readings. You also allude to the idea of music as a language of emotions. Is it possible that the mathematical theory and patterns behind what makes us enjoy music are somewhat responsible for the emotional connections we make to music? Some chords or intervals or keys evoke different emotions than others. Is that because of the proportionality of the notes? Is the emotion perceived a generally universal concept, or would people from different cultures disagree? It seems that because emotions are central to human nature that it would be a nearly universal aspect that has the power to connect people.

    In addition, could it be possible that the rhythm and beat contribute to the emotional understanding of a piece of music? Is this because musical rhythm mirrors linguistic rhythm? Either way, it seems clear that humans expect certain constructs to rhythm and music, probably because we want to identify those patterns. I would encourage you to check out reactions to John Cage’s piece, 4’33”, for more research question ideas about how, what, and why we expect certain regular patterns from music.


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