Rhythm: Time, Space and Media Arts

A few months ago I did a week long teaching residency at Victoria School of the Arts in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada. Victoria is a fantastic public school offering students an arts-focused education.  The school offers an International Baccalaureate program for grades K-12, one of the only schools in Canada to do so.  Victoria has an amazingly talented staff and student body and I got to geek out with these gifted students about one of my favorite topics – rhythm.  I was there with fellow musician Matthew Marsolek to teach about rhythm and also to work with their filmmaking students on editing and exploring various ways of playing audio and visual elements off of eachother. A rhythmic and musical sensibility is a huge advantage in editing video and is a concept that is often under-appreciated.

As many astute filmmakers know, people are much more sensitive to poor quality audio than to poor quality video. This, in and of itself, is very interesting – the idea that despite our apparent visual dominance, we’re more forgiving of inconsistencies in the picture than in the sound.  The conventional wisdom amongst video editors is that you need to provide just enough visual cues to the viewer to suggest what you want them to see and their minds will fill in the rest.   This is similar to how magicians manipulate our perception.  As viewers we seamlessly complete the illusion the editor has implied with the images.  We’re not nearly as easy to trick when it comes to audio.   Poor quality audio recordings immediately interrupt the flow and sounds that don’t match the visuals are even worse.  This is in addition to the fact that the music in a film has a profound effect on the feelings that a film generates in us.  Lackluster music or a score that doesn’t integrate properly with the visuals serve to drastically interrupt our experience of a film.  Music, as we all know, has this very powerful ability to generate emotional response and this is it’s own separate and very deep topic.  But what I want to write a little bit about here is one particular element of music and the element that I consider to be the most important, which is rhythm.  Music can only happen within the context of time and rhythm is simply a way of experiencing time.  You can have music without melody or harmony but not without rhythm – at least not the kind we normally think of.

Rhythmic sensibility is hard-wired into all of us, even those of us without any musical training or knowledge and there is a profound and fascinating reason for this.  Scientists have discovered that music and motion are neurologically intertwined.  The part of our brain that deals with rhythm is one of the deepest and most fundamental parts of our brain and it is intimately tied to the part of our brain that allows us to move our bodies.  No wonder all the world’s drumming traditions have an equally developed dance component. The motor areas of our brain are the same areas that perceive the beat in a piece of music.  One theory for this is that the ability to judge the passage of time is an important part of locomotion.  For example, walking requires quite a complicated coordination of muscle contractions and relaxations.  This process is greatly facilitated by the ability to develop a rhythm to the act of moving and be able to anticipate when the foot will meet the ground, when to shift our weight, etc.  This is something we can do even with our eyes closed because we are not doing it with visual cues alone, we are doing it with an awareness of time and rhythm.  Without this ability to anticipate timing our movement would be very awkward and strained as we can see when a hole or a bump makes our foot meet the ground sooner or later than we were anticipating.

The implications of this are profound.  Some of the most fundamental and early development of our brains, the part of our brains that control motion, are closely linked with our ability to perceive time itself.  The experience and awareness of time is one of the hallmarks of our experience of being alive and both music and video play out within this context of time. Still photography lacks this element but music and video both function within the context of the passage of time.  In fact, this element of the passage of time is one of the defining characteristics of both music and video as opposed to many other kinds of art.  Without this temporal element, film and music cannot exist.

Our brains are adept at noticing rhythmic cycles and anticipating them.  This is why we can dance to music, clap our hands on the beat and feel a sense of resolution when a measure of music comes back to the downbeat at the beginning of a cycle, even if we don’t know what a measure or a downbeat are.  “In a study published in 2005 in Cognitive Brain Research (Vol. 24, No. 1), he used electroencephalography to image participants’ brain activity as they listened to different rhythms.  He found bursts of beta activity that spiked around the beat. The activity even spiked when the beat-note was missing, suggesting that just the anticipation of a beat could trigger it.”   This excerpt from a recent article in the Monitor on Psychology, indicates that once our brain identifies a rhythm, we actually have bursts of beta activity in our brains on every pulse.  What a great spot to sync a visual edit to!  As a musician, creatively accenting and varying the rhythm in a song adds interest, tension and resolution that we respond to emotionally.  As a filmmaker, varying the way we edit visual elements to a rhythm can create the same sorts of responses.

Films attempt to artistically re-create our experience of the world.  In doing so they creatively replicate many of the elements that we experience in the real world, including the element of time.  How we mark that time, through the imposition of rhythm, plays a big role in how we perceive the events that are unfolding.  For example the speed and rhythm of the visual cuts can influence how quickly we perceive things to be happening in the film.  Visual cuts that are out of sync with the music can transmit a feeling of uneasiness or disjointedness.  Visual elements and cuts that follow a rhythm lend a certain feel to the story even when there is no music (which brings up another interesting element of rhythm – primarily, that we can apprehend it with more than one sense, e.g. we don’t have to hear it, we can also see it).  Awareness of this dynamic relationship between what we hear and see and the conscious manipulation of these two elements together leads to a more rhythmic style of editing and is an important part of crafting compelling films.

For more information on the link between music and movement google “music therapy and motor control.”  There’s lots of information out there.

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