The Power of Rhythm in Music and Life
In the classic movie “The Jerk”, Navin Johnson played by Steve Martin seems to have no rhythm. He can feel the music and tries to snap his fingers in time but just can’t get with the beat. The underlying comedic message is that white people have no rhythm but it’s not just the music he doesn’t get. Navin has trouble synchronizing in will life in general.
The funny and kinda sad thing is how many of us can feel like Navin. We want to connect with people and be in flow with things but just can’t sync up as we’d like. Navin eventually finds his groove and sets out to see the world. Before we get too far, let’s start almost from the beginning and dispel a few myths along the way.
We all have rhythm. Some people think they don’t but that belief couldn’t be further from the truth. Around 15 weeks after conception we develop the ability to hear and the first sounds we hear are created by our Mother’s body. Her beating heart, pumping lungs and circulating blood are the first rhythms we are exposed to. As we develop, we breathe, walk and speak in rhythm. Not only are we programed with rhythm prior to birth, the world we enter is filled with it. Seasons, weather, nature all have a rhythm. We exist in rhythm and adapt well to rhythms outside of us whether set by a clock, nature or other people.
This doesn’t mean that we are naturally great at playing drums, dancing or timing the stock market. We have rhythm but need to learn how to put it into the skill we want to excel at. A great musician isn’t naturally a great dancer. If we haven’t put time in moving our body in rhythm we are going to look like our boy Navin. It comes easier to some than others but unless we have a neurological disorder or a brain injury it typically comes down to practice and instruction.
Hopefully we are past the whole “but I don’t have rhythm” block now or at least the seed is planted. Next let’s get a deeper understanding of how rhythm works so we can get in sync better with existing rhythms, create our own and tweak things to get the Feel right.
If I only could use one word I would say rhythm is movement. Rhythm keeps a thing going and when the rhythm stops the thing stops. In music, rhythm is typically the foundation everything else is built on. It’s important it is solid and reliable. If the rhythm breaks down everything built on it comes crashing down. A good rhythm keeps things moving in an interesting way.
Rhythms are patterns
Another way to see rhythm is as a pattern. Hit a drum once and we call that a beat. Hit it 8 times and there is a pattern to those beats. Because we have been walking, talking and breathing our whole life there is a good chance that pattern or rhythm was musical. As a general (but breakable) rule, rhythm should be steady and reliable but not so predictable that it is boring. Anything done the same way over and over again becomes old fast. Three ways to keep rhythm interesting is to vary the tempo, accents and syncopation. If your eyes just glazed over from the music terms don’t worry, we’re breaking it down into simple parts that anyone can understand and apply.
Tempo is basically the speed. Music played faster feels different than music played slowly. City life has a tempo that is typically faster than country life which has a more laid back <<Feel.>> Romance has a tempo to it. Faster usually creates more excitement or tension. Slowing the tempo can create space for all kinds of goodness and depth. We all have a natural tempo that fits best for us but ideally we should be able to speed up or slow down appropriately when we want to fit into the groove that is going on around us.
Accents– Not all beats are equal. We can emphasize or accent one or more beat to give the rhythm character and spice things up. We do this everyday with speech and accent important words in a sentence. Saturday night with friends or Sunday morning with family might be an accent to our weekly rhythm.
Syncopation– This is when we add additional beats between the main beats. Syncopation creates a push pull effect to the rhythm which can add serious mojo. Think New Orleans brass band, ragtime piano or Brazilian Samba. Syncopation has a powerful effect and will have it’s own post later.
It’s important to know when to adapt to an existing rhythm and when it’s time to set the groove. Sometimes we know how it should be and sometimes others know better and we should follow. When we are in charge we get to set the rhythm. When other people have control we need to get with the rhythm that is happening or we miss out or mess things up. Weak rhythm can be made strong and sometimes rhythms require time to evolve into something interesting. A little exploring and some give and take can yield great things. This is the case when it comes to people and relationships.
Patterns we do over and over become ingrained in us and automatic. Patterns free up brain power and allow us to focus our attention on elements that can’t be automated. When we learned to walk we needed our full attention at first to put one foot in front of the other. After we develop a good walking rhythm we can focus on where we are going or talk on the phone.
We call these ingrained patterns habits. We are creatures of habit and habits rule our lives. If we have good examples or have taken the time to make sure our patterns gets us a good result. It’s almost always easier to make a good habit than change a bad one so it is important to make good habits early as possible.
We all have times of the day or year when we are mentally sharper or physically stronger. Students often notice they do better with early morning classes or in the evening. Taking more difficult classes when we are at our best makes much more sense. I used to load trucks for UPS on the graveyard shift from midnight to 8 am. I was out of sync with myself, my girlfriend and pretty much the whole world. It was awful and I needed to make a change. Sometimes to survive we have to work the schedule given but when we are able to work with and not against our natural rhythms life gets much better.
Life has endless patterns to observe and analyze. It is extremely valuable to know which rhythms in life are important to health, relationships or business and make sure they are solid and serving us. Pick 2-5 patterns in life to observe and experiment with. Our sleeping, eating, working and play rhythms profoundly affect of the Feel of life and are a worthwhile place to start.
We all have rhythm.
To be great at a skill we need to learn to put our natural rhythm into that skill.
A good rhythm keeps things moving in an interesting way.
The world operates in rhythm and we are excellent at adapting to those rhythms.
We can learn the rhythms of things, create our own rhythms and tweak ones that aren’t working.
Rhythms can be thought of as pattens or habits
We are creatures of habits. Patterns and habits rule our lives.
It’s always easier to create a good habit than fix a bad one.
Become aware of rhythms in life.
Play with them until they feel right.
Problem? Ask the focusing questions “Am I doing the right action at the right time?”
“Are my actions consistent, dependable and interesting?”
Questions to ponder-
What rhythms in life Feel right? Feel off?
Is the tempo too fast, slow or just right?
Try speeding up, slowing down or changing the accents until the Feel is right.