Rhythm, What Makes Us Move

A music journalist once told me, “Your sense of rhythm is unique. You’re definitely different from other pianists.” I have occasionally heard similar comments. But everyone would be surprised to hear that, when I was younger, I felt rhythm was the weakest of all my musical abilities. My worst enemy was rhythm, and I took several steps over the years to befriend this enemy. And they are a bit amusing.

Before I get into them, I must clarify that what I thought I lacked is not a “sense of tempo.” Rhythm and tempo are concepts often mixed up, but they mean entirely different things. In an encyclopedia, “rhythm” is referred to as “a musical term denoting movement or pattern of sound” and that it comes from the Greek word “rhythmos,” which in turn comes from the Greek verb “rhein,” “to flow.” We learn from textbooks that three elements of Western music are melody, harmony and rhythm. Of the three, harmony is obviously a set of manmade principles. Of melody and rhythm, then, which came first? If we think of primeval times, we can easily find the answer. Rhythm existed long before the humankind realized that we can control our own voice to produce notes of particular frequencies. From heartbeats to footsteps to sound of a waterfall to animal cries, rhythm is everywhere, even in simple sounds without a melody or harmony.

For us humans, whose very existence is determined by the existence of our pulse, rhythmic sense is a faculty that comes to us most instinctively. This is perhaps why we move our bodies to rhythm; what makes us bob our heads, move our shoulders and dance is not melody, not harmony, but rhythm. This is precisely where my dissatisfaction with my sense of rhythm came in: I knew how to be rhythmic, but for some reason I couldn’t generate rhythm that could move people. So one day, I resolved that I shall do everything to acquire stylish rhythm. I got to work immediately and began by analyzing myself. I soon found two overarching problems.

The first problem was that I neither split nor filled enough. Splitting and filling appear to be opposites, but they are in fact closely related. Here’s an example: imagine there is a big plastic ball that should be filled with several smaller balls. What should we do if we want the ball to roll smoothly? We would need as many smaller balls as possible, and they need to be as small as possible; we need to pack the big ball densely enough to get rid of as much empty space as we can. Let’s assume the diameter of the big ball is 1.5 meters, and we have basketballs and tennis balls at our disposal. We would obviously need to use tennis balls, and not basketballs, to pack the big ball and to make it roll smoothly; any tiny space left between tennis balls would make them collide with each other and slow down the big ball.

Let’s then say we have filled the big ball with tennis balls. Each of the tennis balls must be inflated to the maximum so that it forms a perfect sphere. If even one of them is slightly deformed or deflated, it affects the motion of the big ball, making it eventually come to a stop. The same applies to rhythm; in order for it to come alive, the smallest rhythmic unit must be broken down further into finer units, which must in turn fill the biggest unit to generate an even motion and unstoppable suspense.

As soon as I figured out this principle, I went on a mission to digest it by constantly moving my fingers and tapping my feet in everyday life. As I ate, I drummed with my chopsticks and thought about rhythm, and as I put on makeup, I dabbed in rhythm. I also practiced with the piano lid closed and tapping on top of the lid in order to concentrate solely on rhythm. When I listened to music, I tried bobbing my head left and right, doing dance steps or conducting with my arms.

My second problem was more difficult to tackle, and it was none other than my personality. My introverted disposition was more directly tied to my problem with rhythm. In other words, those who can move their bodies to music in front of other people have a huge advantage in developing a sense of rhythm. The lack of such tendency was my Achilles heel, and there was no proven way I could overcome it. The only thingto do was to persevere: waving my body whenever I hear music on the street, humming a tune regardless of whether a stranger is standing next to me, and, most importantly, to not feel awkward while doing these things.

Eventually, my endeavor to find an ideal sense of rhythm turned into a journey toward self-discovery. Since music is an honest account of such journeys, my weakness in rhythm ended up being a source of inspiration for my music.

I have also gained tremendous confidence in my newfound ability to explain the principles behind rhythm, as opposed to other abilities I was born with and therefore cannot easily and logically explain. And, in return, this confidence further strengthens my rhythmic sense, resulting in a virtuous cycle. Perhaps this confidence is what people react to when they pay compliments to my sense of rhythm. What delights me most of all is that I am now able to enjoy rhythm myself, so much so that both my body and my soul can surrender to rhythm.

Yeoleum SON