Rhythm as Social Counting

Peter Nelson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Thinking about rhythm has been dominated by two strands of enquiry: the investigation of the notion of pulse, including analysis of the timing constraints on the repetition inherent in ideas of pulse; and the investigation of rhythmic patterns, from the cataloguing of the poetic feet of ancient times and the rhythm transcriptions of ethnomusicology, to the hierarchical patterns proposed by notions of musical grammar.
However a number of writers, from different disciplines and from different perspectives, have suggested another, crucial, defining property of rhythmic practice: social functionality. This paper seeks to show how social roles in rhythmic practice are important for both performers and listeners in the processes of music making. It attempts to show how a theory of rhythmic practice, based on social determinants, might account for aspects of pulse, pattern and synchronization. It also draws on discussions of the perception of time by Bachelard and Bourdieu to try to account for some of the phenomenological affects of rhythm. Finally, a consideration of counting tries to show that even seemingly abstract systems rest on social determinants, and that a social account of rhythm proposes a plausible pathway for the evolution of music.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIMHSD Summer Workshop on Music, Pattern and Mathematics
Place of PublicationSussex
PublisherHerstmonceaux Castle
Publication statusPublished - 9 Aug 2010


  • rhythm, counting, social ritual, folk rhymes


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