AskDefine | Define rhythm

Dictionary Definition



1 the basic rhythmic unit in a piece of music; "the piece has a fast rhythm"; "the conductor set the beat" [syn: beat, musical rhythm]
2 recurring at regular intervals [syn: regular recurrence]
3 an interval during which a recurring sequence of events occurs; "the neverending cycle of the seasons" [syn: cycle, round]
4 the arrangement of spoken words alternating stressed and unstressed elements; "the rhythm of Frost's poetry" [syn: speech rhythm]
5 natural family planning in which ovulation is assumed to occur 14 days before the onset of a period (the fertile period would be assumed to extend from day 10 through day 18 of her cycle) [syn: rhythm method of birth control, rhythm method, calendar method of birth control, calendar method]

User Contributed Dictionary



First coined 1557, from rhythmus < ῥυθμός < ῥέω (Rhythm is the longest common English word without the vowels a, e, i, o, or u.)



  1. The variation of the duration of sounds over time; a beat or meter.
    Dance to the rhythm of the music.
  2. The tempo or speed of a beat, song, or repeated event.
    She walked with a quick, even rhythm.
  3. A flow, repetition or regularity.
    Once you get the rhythm of it, the job will become easy.''



Extensive Definition

Rhythm (from Greek ῥυθμός - rhythmos, "any measured flow or movement, symmetry") is the variation of the length and accentuation of a series of sounds or other events.

Rhythm in linguistics

The study of rhythm, stress, and pitch in speech is called prosody; it is a topic in linguistics. Narmour (1980, p.147-53) describes three categories of prosodic rules which create rhythmic successions which are additive (same duration repeated), cumulative (short-long), or countercumulative (long-short). Cumulation is associated with closure or relaxation, countercumulation with openness or tension, while additive rhythms are open-ended and repetitive. Richard Middleton points out this method cannot account for syncopation and suggests the concept of transformation.
A rhythmic unit is a durational pattern which occupies a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses on an underlying metric level, as opposed to a rhythmic gesture which does not (DeLone et al. (Eds.), 1975,

Rhythm in music

Musicians make rhythms with musical instruments. A musician's role is to perceive and measure time. We consciously feel, shape, divide, and compose time to convey feeling. All musicians, instrumentalists and vocalists work with rhythm, but in modern music a rhythm section generally consists of percussion instruments, bass and possibly chordal instruments (e.g., guitar, banjo) and keyboard instruments, such as piano and organ. In recent years, music theorists have attempted to explain connections between rhythm, meter, and the broad structure and organization of sound events in music. Some have suggested that rhythm (and its essential relationship to the temporal aspect of sound) may in fact be the most fundamental aspect of music. Hasty (1997, p. 3), for example, notes that "Among the attributes of rhythm we might include continuity or flow, articulation, regularity, proportion, repetition, pattern, alluring form or shape, expressive gesture, animation, and motion (or at least the semblance of motion). Indeed, so intimate is the connection of the rhythmic and the musical, we could perhaps most concisely and ecumenically define music as the 'rhythmization' of sound." Another piece of evidence suggesting that rhythm is the most fundamental aspect of music is that percussion instruments were likely in use long before stringed instruments. Tribal groups dancing to music made only with percussion instruments is an ancient human practice, which reportedly continues today. The three fundamental elements of music are rhythm, intervals, and chords.

Origins of human appreciation of rhythm

In his series How Music Works, Howard Goodall presents theories that rhythm recalls how we walk and the heartbeat we heard in the womb. However neither would seem to have any survival value in Man's evolution. More likely is that a simple pulse or di-dah beat recalls the footsteps of another person. Our sympathetic urge to dance is designed to boost our energy levels in order to cope with someone, or some animal chasing us -- a fight or flight response. It is possibly also rooted in courtship ritual.

Rhythm notation and the oral tradition

Worldwide there are many different approaches to passing on rhythmic phrases and patterns, as they exist in traditional music, from generation to generation.

African music

In the Griot tradition of Africa everything related to music has been passed on orally. Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian drummer living and working in the USA developed a simple series of spoken sounds for teaching the rhythms of the hand drum. He used six vocal sounds: Goon Doon Go Do Pa Ta. There are three basic sounds on the drum but each can be played with left or right hand. This simple system is now used worldwide particularly by Djembe players.

Indian music

Again an oral tradition. Tabla players would learn to speak complex rhythm patterns and phrases before attempting to play them. Sheila Chandra an English pop singer of Indian descent made performances based around her singing these patterns. In Indian Classical music, the Tala of a composition is pretty much the rhythmic pattern over which the whole piece is structured.

Western music

Standard music notation contains all rhythmic information and is adapted specifically for drums and percussion instruments. The drums are generally used to keep other instruments in 'time'. They do this by supplying beats/strikes in time at a certain pace, e.g.: 70 beats per minute (bpm). A drum beat is used to keep a bass/guitar line in time.


In Western music, rhythms are usually arranged with respect to a time signature, partially signifying a meter. The speed of the underlying pulse, called the beat, is the tempo. The tempo is usually measured in 'beats per minute' (bpm); 60 bpm means a speed of one beat per second. The length of the meter, or metric unit (usually corresponding with measure length), is usually grouped into either two or three beats, being called duple meter and triple meter, respectively. If each beat is grouped in two, it is simple meter, if in three compound meter. According to Pierre Boulez, beat structures beyond four are simply not natural.
Syncopated rhythms are rhythms that accent parts of the beat not already stressed by counting. Playing simultaneous rhythms in more than one time signature is called polymeter. See also polyrhythm. In recent years, rhythm and meter have become an important area of research among music scholars. Recent work in these areas includes books by Maury Yeston, Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, Jonathan Kramer, Christopher Hasty, William Rothstein, and Joel Lester.
Some genres of music make different use of rhythm than others. Most Western music is based on divisive rhythm, while non-Western music uses more additive rhythm. African music makes heavy use of polyrhythms, and Indian music uses complex cycles such as 7 and 13, while Balinese music often uses complex interlocking rhythms. By comparison, a lot of Western classical music is fairly rhythmically simple; it stays in a simple meter such as 4/4 or 3/4 and makes little use of syncopation. Clave is a common underlying rhythm in African, Cuban music, and Brazilian music.
In the 20th century, composers like Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich wrote more rhythmically complex music using odd meters, and techniques such as phasing and additive rhythm. At the same time, modernists such as Olivier Messiaen and his pupils used increased complexity to disrupt the sense of a regular beat, leading eventually to the widespread use of irrational rhythms in New Complexity. This use may be explained by a comment of John Cage's where he notes that regular rhythms cause sounds to be heard as a group rather than individually; the irregular rhythms highlight the rapidly changing pitch relationships that would otherwise be subsumed into irrelevant rhythmic groupings (Sandow 2004, p.257). LaMonte Young also wrote music in which the sense of a regular beat is absent because the music consists only of long sustained tones (drones). In the 1930s, Henry Cowell wrote music involving multiple simultaneous periodic rhythms and collaborated with Léon Theremin to invent the Rhythmicon, the first electronic rhythm machine, in order to perform them. Similarly, Conlon Nancarrow wrote for player piano.



  • Hasty, Christopher (1997). Meter as Rhythm. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510066-2.
  • London, Justin (2004). Hearing in Time: Psychological Aspects of Musical Meter. ISBN 0-19-516081-9.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Narmour (1980). Cited in DeLone et al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  • Sandow, Greg (2004). "A Fine Madness", The Pleasure of Modernist Music. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Yeston, Maury (1976). "The Stratification of Musical Rhythm".

Further reading

  • McGaughey, William (2001). "Rhythm and Self-Consciousness: New Ideals for an Electronic Civilization". Minneapolis: Thistlerose Publications. ISBN 0-9605630-4-0.
  • Honing, H. (2002). "Structure and interpretation of rhythm and timing." Tijdschrift voor Muziektheorie [Dutch Journal of Music Theory] 7(3): 227-232.
  • Lewis, Andrew (2005). Rhythm—What it is and How to Improve Your Sense of It. San Francisco: RhythmSource Press. ISBN-13: 978-0-9754667-0-4.
rhythm in Bosnian: Ritam
rhythm in Catalan: Ritme
rhythm in Czech: Rytmus (hudba)
rhythm in Danish: Rytme
rhythm in German: Rhythmus (Musik)
rhythm in Estonian: Rütm (muusika)
rhythm in Spanish: Ritmo
rhythm in French: Rythme
rhythm in Korean: 리듬
rhythm in Croatian: Ritam
rhythm in Icelandic: Taktur
rhythm in Italian: Ritmo (musica)
rhythm in Hebrew: משקל (מוזיקה)
rhythm in Georgian: რიტმი
rhythm in Latvian: Ritms
rhythm in Ligurian: Ritmo
rhythm in Malayalam: താളം
rhythm in Dutch: Ritme
rhythm in Japanese: リズム
rhythm in Norwegian: Rytme
rhythm in Norwegian Nynorsk: Rytme
rhythm in Polish: Rytm
rhythm in Portuguese: Ritmo
rhythm in Russian: Ритм
rhythm in Simple English: Rhythm
rhythm in Slovenian: Ritem
rhythm in Finnish: Rytmi
rhythm in Swedish: Rytm
rhythm in Turkish: Ritim
rhythm in Chinese: 节奏

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Alexandrine, accent, accentuation, alternation, amphibrach, amphimacer, anacrusis, anapest, antispast, arrhythmia, arsis, bacchius, balance, beat, beating, beauty, cadence, cadency, caesura, catalexis, chloriamb, chloriambus, colon, concinnity, counterpoint, cretic, cyclicalness, dactyl, dactylic hexameter, diaeresis, dimeter, dipody, dochmiac, downbeat, drumming, elegiac, elegiac couplet, elegiac pentameter, emphasis, epitrite, equilibrium, euphony, feminine caesura, flutter, foot, harmony, heartbeat, heartthrob, heptameter, heptapody, heroic couplet, hexameter, hexapody, iamb, iambic, iambic pentameter, ictus, intermittence, intermittency, ionic, jingle, level of stress, lilt, masculine caesura, measure, measuredness, meter, metrical accent, metrical foot, metrical group, metrical unit, metrics, metron, molossus, mora, movement, number, numbers, order, orderedness, oscillation, paeon, palpitation, pendulum motion, pentameter, pentapody, period, periodicalness, periodicity, piston motion, pitapat, pitter-patter, primary stress, proceleusmatic, proportion, prosodics, prosody, pulsation, pulse, pyrrhic, quantity, rat-a-tat, rataplan, reappearance, recurrence, regular wave motion, reoccurrence, return, rhyme, rhythmic pattern, rhythmical stress, seasonality, secondary stress, spondee, sprung rhythm, staccato, stress, stress accent, stress pattern, sweetness, swing, symmetry, syzygy, tempo, tertiary stress, tetrameter, tetrapody, tetraseme, thesis, throb, throbbing, time, timing, tribrach, trimeter, tripody, triseme, trochee, undulation, upbeat, weak stress
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