The Roots of Rhythm

It would be hard to gloss over the fact that the Siblings have apparently been on an extended Christmas break since, oh, say, December 11th or so. Suffice to say that one of us has a better reason than the other, who is merely procrastinatory. A word which he made up and offers to you as proof that good things come to those who wait.

We have many nascent ideas for posts, but the one I’ve apparently chosen to wade back in with is a little bizarre. Yesterday, while watching something on the teevy (I believe it was the masterful Sherlock, specifically the third episode of this latest “series” – our deep thanks to (a) the UK and (b) WETA!) there was a scene in which a heartbeat was played in the background. For whatever reason — because in my multiple decades, I’ve heard a heartbeat once or twice and faintly remember breaking down the various sections of an EKG in a biology class — yesterday I noticed that it appeared to be in waltz time: 3/4.  See for yourself:

About 10 or so years ago, I began realizing that I had a particular affinity for songs and compositions in 3/4 time, both pop and classical. I hadn’t really thought about why that might be the case. I think it was Elliott Smith’s music that first drew my attention to it, though it did not begin there. As many know, Elliott was a masterful songwriter, a uniquely talented guitar player (multi-instrumentalist, really), and beautifully gifted in both lyrics and melody. Besides the two waltzes on XO (Waltz #2 is better known than the gossamer, sorrowing-yet-angry, deep nighttime Waltz #1), many of Elliott’s songs are in 3, and are so well crafted that their meter is not obtrusive. He seems so at home in the meter, with the melody dipping in and out and over and through the beat, whereas something like James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” seems forced (it is a nice song, though). I think “I Better Be Quiet Now” is one of my favorites of Elliott’s.

Given the Sherlock event’s sudden impingement on this three-quarters of an imponderable, today I did some light digging. Naturally, I’m not the first to notice or wonder about this. Here is one message board (aptly, at Drumforum.org) where a few folks weigh in; many of them estimate 3/4 or 6/8 time but others say 4/4. I wouldn’t think heartbeats could vary by rhythm rather than speed of that rhythm, but I am a doctor in no sense of the word. Except the sense of “Brain Donors” where I pretend to be one for nefarious purposes.

http://www.drumforum.org/index.php?/topic/20674-what-is-the-time-signature-of-a-heart-beat/

Many of the participants immediately use the question to suggest that music appreciation is rooted in physiological rhythm. I love the connection to jazz and swing, personally. But overall it’s a bit too much for me, because how do you explain speed metal? Or the diverse time signatures found the world over? I think you could posit a connection to biorhythms more generally than the waltz time specifically. But I do find the possibility of this connection intriguing. It may be nothing more than mere coincidence. But a nice one, at least. It reminded me of these Paul Simon lyrics:

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

A couple cursory searches did not uncover a lot of material on this subject. Perhaps some of our friends can help enlighten us. I will leave you with Erik Satie’s three wonderful “Gymnopédies,” which are written, of course, in my bizarrely beloved waltz time. Here played with bizarre cinematic accompaniment by Aldo Ciccolini, one of the best Satie interpreters for piano.