Monday, 11 July 2016

Verbs of physical action and their relation to music

Rhythm, some thoughts prior to composing

As a teenager I had some very primitive ideas about rhythm and pulse and until recently I had been unconcerned about their origins. Reading a little into the matter I was surprised to find that a great deal of research has been done on rhythm in the field of anthropology with parts of the results relating to our psychological development. The following extract puts the argument in the camp of basic sexual needs and survival. The article that took my interest made a study of synchronised speech and explored its importance for early man.
One recent theory that places vocal synchrony at the origins of human rhythmic abilities proposes that a selective pressure on males to synchronize was originally supplied by migrating females whose decision to settle with a particular group of males was determined in part by the synchronicity of multi-male vocal displays. According to this hypothesis, synchronous vocalizations could have influenced migrating females in at least three ways:
(1) synchronous vocalizations can sum in amplitude resulting in higher-power composite signals that travel farther with greater intensity and thus have more potential to attract females
(2) increased intensity may have served as an indication of the resource richness of the territory held by a male group; and
(3) high quality synchrony may have also indicated something about the capacity of a particular group for cooperation, which may have had additional benefits in resource acquisition and territorial defense. To the extent that these factors actually did affect the choice to settle by migrating females, there would have been sexual selection on males to develop vocal synchrony skills.
Certain misgivings were raised in the article and an alternative view offered:
One intriguing alternative possibility is that the pressure to synchronize resulted from a more general “cooperative urge” – a motivation to share experiences, activities, and emotions with others – that is so typical of both sexes in our species, and so unusual in the natural world.
For those interested in following the argument in full the document is available at
Having shared that material with Nurtan he replied with the following thoughts in which he also questions the argument from a sonic viewpoint:
The physics of human sounds are such that in order to produce a synchronicity each source must sing a) the same vowel or nearly the same. b) it should be more or less the same pitch or the same fundamental.
When we speak we pronounce vowels by isolating overtones in the resonator that is the oral cavity. This is basically the same principle with any instrument. Now if we have n number of subjects singing something that can be synchronised such as the national anthem, it the resonant field, the nearby location to the source with the distance related decay of sound does not yet take place, the amplitude is additive but as you move away from it the sound will start to be perceived as something akin to white noise. Also, as you more way from the sound the reflection from nearby structures such as trees, houses, temples etc. will start to play games with the sound. The longer the distance more asynchrony will be introduced so it would be easier to attract the opposite sex by waving arms within say hundred metres. Singing with nearly synchronous voices would be attractive only if there is a slight amount of a synchronicity. This is fortunately always the case because each resonator for each instrument is slightly different than any other that produces the full voice of a choir, the violin section, full orchestra in contrast to the solo instrument. That's why we recognise a section of violins playing the same tune not as a loud solo violin.
Similarly we can introduce an argument for asynchrony being the essential attribute of ensemble playing provided that it is just right. How asynchronous should an ensemble be? Just the right amount; too much and it can sound like a motet or just plain wrong. Its range? Just enough to clearly hear the polyphony. This brings into question the idea of rhythmic similarity of the voices. The entire late mediaeval literature of motets, madrigals and differentiation of parallels lines in contrast to cantus firmus. In the late mediaeval music the motives of the iso-rhythmic madrigals and motets gave way to suitable counterpoint and we have never stopped seeking different asynchrony to strengthen the attractiveness of the music. If I'm not mistaken in my interpretation then the opposite of the synchronous would be true since it is difficult for a single voice to produce counterpoint's changing, as it is in yodelling would be imitating counterpoint by shifting vowels.

Returning to the argument about synchronous behaviour in primitive man these early developments may be interesting in themselves, but the rhythms that interest and attract us today are distant from the regular beat or chant of our ancestors, even though basic rhythms remin the cornerstone of performance and composition. One of many ways to clarify that argument is to think of music education, those involved would agree that games involving coordination skills, and those involving clapping and skipping in particular play an important part of our gradually developing dexterity with instrumental techniques. Nurtan’s extension of the idea into the importance of asynchronous material takes us away from the basic view of rhythm and is a key into asking questions about the nature of the very sounds that we use to create a pulse.

This is far too large a topic to cover during the summer break but I would like to give a flavour of the idea.

The process of generating multiple sounds to a single line generates some interesting musical features. In my piece "What if.....street musicians played plainchant" the plainchant melody was moved in randomly around the main beat to create several versions of the melody moving together in only the most general fashion, the equivalent of a bad ensemble.

This is different to the bulk of recorded music heard which is often made to be exact, technology playing its part through pitch correction and varieties of drum machines, MIDI sequencing, quantizing etc.

Once the focus had been placed this way several questions about the organization of rhythm started to emerge, and one result was the table for verbs of human motion, with this table the organization of rhythm could be worked musically from micro to macro levels.

I am including the original table here and removing the original introduction in this revised version of the blog:

The terms of motion fall into four groups, the manner of motion, change of state, emission and extinction. The groups have been reduced to those which are more distinctly related to music.



I like the fact that bounce and swing relate (in my mind) to jazz, and as I worked on the other words noticed how some suit particular historical periods better than others.

Change of state


It came as a pleasant surprise to me that my list of associated works had Holst’s Planet’s Suite appearing a large number of times in regard to this particular table.