In the Beginning there was Rhythm

“Begin with the End in Mind”

 Stephen Covey

In music that beginning is Rhythm.

In this series of posts, we will explore the science of rhythm.  We will discover where science and mathematics meet music.

Where is the Science of Traditional Music Theory

It is hard to believe that you can find many articles, YouTube and Ted Talks videos exclaiming the connection between science/math and music. Sound is scientific, it is governed by the law of physics. Sound can be measured in many different ways frequency (pitch), amplitude (loudness), and timbre (tone color/wave shape).  Why is this fact so amazing?

The reason is the notation system that is used was devised in the 16th Century.

Why Traditional  Music Notation has Prevented Further development of Music Styles.

The scientific process must use a systematic form of notation so that theories can be continually tested and proven and expanded. Traditional music notation is not and has never been a scientific process. It was developed over the years by trial and error. Traditional musical notation has been a source of confusion because of its non-scientific process which has lead to stifling music development.

Traditional music notation influences the way music is written. It is biased toward certain rhythm families and virtually non-existent for others. Traditional notation is efficient for rhythms of 2, 4, 8 or 3, 6, and 9, however, limitations arise with rhythms of 5, 7 and 10.
Confusion begins in the early music learning process because of this non-scientific logic, for example, the symbols we use to represent note durations are given qualitative names such as quarter notes, half notes, eighth notes etc.. and they are not a quarter, half or eighth of anything. It would have been easier to name these notes Fred or  Margaret, at least we would think they had any mathematical value.

Let’s Simplify

What do we need to do to measure rhythm?

Reduce it to its lowest common denominator. Instead of giving note values confusing mathematical names like quarter, half, and eighth lets say that the fastest duration is 1.

Here is the terminology:


t = 1      where   1 = 1/8 note  

(1 is the fastest duration it could be 1/4,  1/16 etc..)

T = measure /bar

t = 1          1 equals 1/8 note

   T = 6      1 measure equals 6 (1/8) notes

           2      1      1       2

T = (2 + 1 + 1 + 2)


Next, we will look at how we organize rhythms in Style Families


5 thoughts on “In the Beginning there was Rhythm”

  1. Florian Schneider

    Concerning note duration names in the “classical” music:
    it is obvious, that these names derive from one of the standard rhythms, the 4/4 – time/measure.
    It is true, that from baroque music, there have been much more variations of time.
    But before that, even in church music, where it was/is crucial to simplify the musical speech to get all people to take part of the ceremony, one of the standards ( probably THE standard) is
    the 4/4.

  2. Just to point out that the time signature of early church music was not4/4 as 3 was taken as the most perfect number because of the holy trinity. Also the quarter note did not exist yet so note length were restricted to Longa and Breve Semibreve and Minim. In the most perfect time signature there were 3 notes per bar and each note was divided by three. But of course they didn’t have a bar either.
    As of the whole discussion on notation, yes it’s not very precise and a mischmasch but none came up with a better one yet. Have you tried playing from a graph?

    1. Hi Frank,
      I did not know that but makes perfect sense.
      Traditional notation is the culprit. The problem being the bias toward time signatures of 2and 4 after time the acceptance on 3 and 6, steers a composer to write in the more ‘popular signatures.
      The Schillinger System uses a graphing procedure that we use to derive all rhythms and their permutations.
      I have used graphic notation many times and now with piano roll view of midi I can achieve the same results right in my DAW.
      In my musique concrete pieces I use a graphic, that plots time vs density and I assembled my clips to the grid. The density controls the tension and release.
      I feel that anything that forces us to see outside the norm can only open up tremendous possibilities.
      Robert Fripp, in his Guitar Workshops, assigns each student a different tuning so that no student has an advantage over another plus nurtured their creativity by find new sounds.

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