Keeping the Beat

Rhythm.  It’s the building block of all music.

One might even contend it’s foundational for all of life.

Before we learn to sing a pitch, we learn simple rhythms.  We bang our cups on the arm of the high chair, later graduating to wooden spoons on Mama’s pots and pans.

The older we get, the more sophisticated the beat.  Sitting on a wooden structure, such as a stage, where our feet dangle against the side, we find ourselves bumping our heels against it, timidly at first—exploring the resonance and tonality, then boldly, with authority and style.

We find we like beating on things in rhythm, moving from there to rhythm1drumming with our fingers on desktops (to the great annoyance of our school teachers), then using other implements such as pencils and sticks (especially effective if dragged across the top of a picket or dog-eared privacy fence).

Each one of us has an innate sense of rhythm, waiting to be developed.

I’m not saying we’re all adept at keeping the beat with what goes on around us, just that rhythm itself is a part of our very being.  From our mother’s heartbeat inside the womb, and the muffled music we hear vaguely there, we are programmed from our conception to respond to rhythm.

It never stops throughout our lives.

Clocks ticking, hammers pounding, feet marching, swings moving to and fro, the beat goes on unstopped.  Oh, they are different rhythms, but it is indeed basic to our existence.

A friend pointed out the elemental aspect of rhythm the other day, as we bemoaned the lack of that same simplicity in the word we use to describe it.

Was there ever such a screwball word used to describe what one would expect to be a simple function?  We were actually arguing about whether the word rhythm has two syllables; he maintained it does; I say it does not, since there is no point at which the word can be hyphenated.

His response eventually was this, “Why is it that a word—rhythm—which represents a bodily property that must arrive naturally and by instinct, should be so unnatural and counter-instinctive in its construction?”

It is a good question, but as I thought about it, I began to realize he is not completely correct.  More accurately, he hasn’t included all the essential elements of the issue in his premise.

We do, indeed, arrive at our own rhythm “naturally and by instinct”, but it is heavily influenced by our environment and our education.  Both of these things vary greatly from person to person, so it stands to reason that the natural rhythm of life will also vary just as much from person to person.

Is this a little too esoteric a discussion for you folks? 

Let me try to bring it around to a point where you will be at least slightly interested.

I make no promises…

I am remembering a time when I was about thirteen years old.  I had missed a day or two of junior high school and coming back, realized suddenly in band class that I had missed more than just the hours of drudgery which school embodied to a young teenage boy.

Mr. Olson had some odd notes drawn on the blackboard and he pointed to them, saying (just as if we should all understand the statement), “Remember the triplets we talked about the other day?  You’ll see them in this piece we’re about to play.”

I looked at the notes, realizing they were shaped exactly like an eighth note, but instead of two of them hooked together, there were three.

Why, anyone knows you can only have two eighth notes in one beat!  What was this madness?  Three eighth notes tied together?  That would have to be a beat and a half!

And that is what I attempted to play as the whole band read the music together.  It didn’t work.  They played those three notes on their one beat, while I played them on my one and a half beats.

We didn’t finish up at the same time.  It wasn’t beautiful music.

After a little remedial instruction and an Aha! moment or two, I learned how the triplet worked, but it was awfully strange for me to know I was correct in my application of the rules of rhythm, only to be out of step with everyone around me.

I learned that when playing with others, a common understanding of the basics is pretty essential.

But, I don’t want you to believe it is imperative that all the instruments in a band must play the same rhythm. In fact, that would be incredibly dull.

Using the understanding we have of music theory, most instruments will often play very different rhythms throughout a piece.

Eighth note triplets (three to a beat) are frequently played against regular eighth notes (two to a beat), while other voices may play whole notes (four beats) or even dotted quarter notes (one and a half beats).

Each instrumentalist carefully counts and plays his or her notes at the precise point in the measure at which it is written.

The result is intricate and beautiful music, with melody and countermelody, along with rhythmic harmonies.  All the parts flow together, even though they play their assigned rhythm, seemingly at odds with the others.

Is the point of my prattling beginning to become slightly more clear?

Let me see if I can tie it up in a neat package for you then.

Throughout our lives, we live in concert with other players. Some, we will share a common rhythm with, having learned basically the same lessons and arrived at the same conclusions.

Others, who will come alongside us at times during our lives, have a different idea of the rhythm of life.

There will be those with whom we may not be able to blend, but it is essential we make the attempt.  We may soon find the contrast of their triplets against our duple eighth notes enriches the music in a spectacular way.

The driving oomp of the tubas on the downbeats, when combined with the uplifting pahs of the horns on the upbeats will inexplicably help to add purpose and determination to the steps in the march of life.

Will we make beautiful music with everyone?  Probably not. 

I have known a few folks with whom I could find no common meter, the skewed pattern of our differences causing confusion and dissension.  With these few, we have had to agree to disagree and go our separate ways, since the resulting cacophony is worse than any potential benefit.

But we try. 

And, we don’t disrespect these folks because of our differences. Like the confusing word we started out with, there are some who hear a different beat in their heads and they follow it. (Was that one syllable or two?)

It’s fair to speculate that the Conductor of this great symphony will sort things out in the end, bringing it all to a resounding and beautiful conclusion.

Until then, I’ll keep working on my skills, attempting to come in on the correct beat, and counting the rests as accurately as I can.

I see some more of those triplets coming up soon and I want to be ready for them.  Maybe you’ll count along with me on your half notes.


Time to find the beat.

The rhythm of life continues.  Really.

Or, if you prefer the Sonny and Cher version, “And the beat goes on.”




If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
(Romans 12:18 ~ NASB)


If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
(Henry David Thoreau~American essayist~1817-1862)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016 All Rights Reserved.

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