The following is drawn from some notes on prosody I began writing some years ago. Prosody, and rhythm generally, has been a central preoccupation of mine, as might be guessed from my domain name, the former name of this website, and many of the articles and posts in it. In this draft I was attempting to clarify some very broad terms that might be applied to a general study of rhythm. To speak of rhythm from the standpoint of psychology or physiology, or musicology or poetics, generally assumes that we already understand what rhythm is. I make no such assumption, and the approach here might be thought of as belonging more to philosophy than to anything more specialized.
Rhythm and number
Meter is the countable aspect of rhythm. If a rhythm has nothing in it that we can meaningfully count, then we generally consider it unmetered.
In order to count, we must regard different things or events as the same. All rhythm involves recurring events. We can thus see how any rhythm involves a sort of incipient counting.
Sameness is of course a matter of degree, and there is often some doubt about which events in a rhythm “count” and which do not. Indeed, a rhythm that is absolutely countable will be monotonous. However, a rhythm that is monotonous on one level may be quite unpredictable on another.
It is hard to say where real counting begins. If there is only one level of repetition, for instance in a steady drumbeat with no accents, then there is obviously no need to count at all. Still, the drummer’s effort to make all the time intervals between beats, as well as the beats themselves, the same, suggests that a subliminal sort of measurement is occuring.
If we add an accent to every other beat, then we clearly have a rhythm counted “in two.” This is usually considered, in music, to be the simplest meter. However, for consistency, it would perhaps be better to consider the first example, the steady beats without accents, to be the simplest. Its “measure” would be an isochronous beat, counted “in one.” To vary the monotony, we could add occasional accents, in no consistently countable pattern. Such a rudimentary “meter” can have a suprisingly lively effect.
The higher the number, the greater the need for deliberate counting. If we enter a room with three people in it, we hardly need to count to know how many are there. If on the other hand there are nine people there, we will have to count to know it.
Other factors may affect the need to count. If we see a row of three windows, at each of which three people are standing, we can appreciate that whole fact in an instant, even if we don’t know that three times three is nine. If the windows, moving left to right, have four, two and three people in them respectively, that situation will probably take a bit longer to register, and be a lot harder to remember.
When we are dealing with events that appear in succession, as we are with rhythm, there is also the factor of speed or “tempo.” In the “midrange” of tempo, where we find – probably not coincidentally – important bodily rhythms like the heartbeat and breathing, the perception of number is most immediate. At much slower tempos we will need to count just to keep track of where we are, and at much faster ones, we will need to slow things down to count at all, as separate events start to merge into a continuum, e.g. a musical tone or a moving picture. It is, roughly speaking, only in this midrange that we directly perceive rhythm at all. Of course what we barely sense, or see only on reflection, can sometimes be as important as what we perceive directly.
It is usual in poetics to distinguish more or less sharply between meter and rhythm. A favorite analogy is of a container (meter) and what it contains (rhythm). It might be better, though, to think of meter as a sort of skeleton of rhythm. A container, after all, is separate from what it contains; a skeleton is part of the whole animal.
If a rhythm can be known without counting, then there is no need to count it. We rarely need to count an animal’s vertebrae or its digits to know what species it belongs to. We may still find it helpful to do so, however, whether to understand its relationship to other species or to explain some aspect of its behavior.
In Western music, with its highly articulated rhythm, it is customary to regard all rhythms as more or less countable. This is partly due to the necessity of keeping different performers in time with each other. The convention is therefore not as strictly observed in solo performances, and in certain kinds of cantillation, for instance, it may be dispensed with altogether.
Western poetry, to the extent that it has divorced itself from music or any kind of coordinated performance, makes no assumption that its rhythms are always countable. If they are, roughly speaking, the poetry is said to be in meter, if not, it is said to be unmetered or “free” verse.
In principle, though, there seems to be no reason why we could not, if we wanted to, consider all poetic rhythms to be more or less countable, if only for purposes of analysis. We might then find it convenient to make use of some conventions borrowed from musical practice.