“I got rhythm, I got music…Who could ask for anything more?” – George & Ira Gershwin
You’d think of all people I would get you. I’m a musician, an artist. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…but oh no, I seem called to march to the beat of a different drum. An irregular meter. A swaying, undisciplined stagger. A mess.
Music is “spirit, but spirit subject to the measurement of time,” wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine. George Gershwin wrote “I got rhythm” a century later. They were talking about the same thing.
Rhythm is the way music and life is organized and measured in time. It is the structuring according to sounds and silences of varying duration, and the forming of measured sounds and silences into patterns. The patterns fit in a framework of beats.
We think of our life as something that moves. Rhythm is what makes it move; it is the brush stroke with which life paints. And the patterns and combinations of rhythm determine how the brush (and thus the artist) moves through time, whether it flows or flourishes or dances, or whether it skips or staggers.
Rhythm is also a generic term used to refer to any measured pattern in either sound or movement. The various combinations of long and short sounds — dots and dashes — that make up the alphabet in Morse code, for example, are all “rhythms,” or “rhythmic figures,” even though they’re not music. Think, too, of the rhythms of speech, the rhythm of the waves, or the rhythm of a horse’s gallop.
“The body is a rhythm machine,” in the words of Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead. We breathe in a rhythm, and our hearts beat in a rhythm. Our every physical movement, conscious or unconscious, creates a rhythm, implies a rhythm, or is governed by a rhythm. It should come as no surprise, then, that rhythm composes an essential element of an artist’s life. There can be rhythm without melody — think of a drumbeat — but no melody without rhythm, without some notes lasting longer than others.
Changing the tempo, however, does not change the rhythm, it just speeds it up or slows it down. Few artists and leaders grasp this crucial scientific law. For every moment in life, the artist must decide which rhythm, in the context of the tempo and in combination with the melody, will be the most effective, the most persuasive, the most beautiful. Rhythm has much to do with how moving our life ultimately will be.
You’d think of all people I would get it. The tempo, melody and even harmonies of life I do pretty well, but this rhythm thing…I just can’t quite get it organized and structured. And I pay the price.
I am finally coming to realize the patterns and discipline of the great artists have a direct correlation with what they accomplish on earth and the legacy they leave behind. Now, if only I could sing in time with Gershwin, “I’ve got…”