Towards a Social Theory of Rhythm

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, and 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 transcriptions of ethnomusicology, to the hierarchical patterns proposed by notions of musical grammar.
A number of writers, from different disciplines and from different perspectives, suggest another, crucial, defining property of rhythmic practice: social functionality. Developmental psychologist, Colwyn Trevarthen , posits what he calls the intrinsic motive pulse as the glue of communication between mothers and infants, and thus at the heart of both music and language. Similarly, ethnomusicologist, Simha Arom, in his investigation of African polyrhythms , gives a detailed account of the way different rhythmic streams function as a whole, while giving each participant a unique and indispensible role to play. Yet neither of these writers goes on to investigate the rhythmic apparatus of the social roles they constitute as bound together by rhythm.
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.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUniversals in Music
Subtitle of host publicationEuropean Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM) 1st International Colloquium
Place of PublicationAix-en-Provence
PublisherUniversity of Provence
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2010


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