Music Therapists Do It Differently: Rhythm

In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part six of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here.

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#6. Rhythm

Rhythm is perhaps the most basic building block of music.

Rhythm alone can make music, but you can’t have a melody without rhythm. You can’t add harmony to a melody without rhythm either.

Obviously, rhythm is important to every musician, whether they are performers, composers, conductors, or dancers. Music therapists do have some unique considerations when it comes to rhythm, though.

Because rhythm is such a huge concept in music, it’s helpful to talk about some of the smaller components that make up rhythm. Tempo is one that we already discussed. Two more are meter and accent.

Meter Matters.

Rhythmic meter involves the relationships between strong beats and weaker beats within a musical phrase. Those of us used to listening to Western music are probably most familiar with the difference in feeling between duple meter (2/4 or 4/4 time – like a march) and triple meter (3/4 time – like a waltz), and between simple meter (with beats having an even number of subdivisions – like “Yankee Doodle”) and compound meter (with beats divided in three – like “Hickory Dickory Dock”).

"That lullaby sound is nice! Makes me want to take a nap…"

“That lullaby sound is nice! Maybe I should take a nap…”

Music therapists choose to improvise in a particular meter or may choose a song based on its meter. For example, we know that music in triple meter tends to have a rocking feeling. (This makes sense when you think of the connection to waltz music.) So, when I want to support a husband swaying to the music with his wife, I would probably choose “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” over “You Are My Sunshine.” On the other hand, when I want to support someone in marching in time to the music or playing a drum with a steady beat, I would choose something in duple meter.

Accent Matters, Too.

You can say that the strong beats in a particular meter are accented (i.e. beat one in 3/4 time, or beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time). When the accents do not match up with the naturally-expected strong beats in a particular meter, you get syncopation.

Syncopation was the defining feature of jazz and other popular styles to emerge in the 20th century. Although it has been around long enough to be very familiar to our Western ears, adding syncopation in melodies and accompaniment can still sound contemporary and fresh. In fact, one study suggested that syncopated patterns were more enjoyed and viewed as happier and more complex than unsyncopated patterns. So, music therapists may add syncopation to make a musical experience more emotionally rewarding and attention-grabbing.

On the other hand, from a neurological perspective, it is easier for us to find and match the strong beats in a meter than to track syncopated rhythms. Simpler, more predictable accents work better for clients who are trying to match a movement to rhythm, whether that is playing a drum on the beat or walking in time to the music. In helping clients with gait training using rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) following a stroke, for example, music therapists prioritize simpler rhythms that encourage rhythmic entrainment over the enjoyment or emotional reward of the music. So, music therapists choose simpler or more complex syncopation based on the needs and goals of their clients.

What do these choices look like in a music therapy session?

Imagine Lynn working with an 77-year-old resident, Larry, who is in the early stage of Parkinson’s Disease and is recovering from a hip fracture in a nursing home. Larry is working with a physical therapist to rebuild his strength and endurance for walking, and Lynn is providing music therapy co-treatment. To support Larry’s gait training, Lynn sings and plays “Yankee Doodle.” While this isn’t Larry’s favorite song at all, it does give the strong beat to help him march down the hallway. The priority is regaining the functional skill of walking.

Contrast that with Lynn’s session with Rhonda, a 69-year-old woman on hospice care for end-stage breast cancer. Rhonda loves classic Motown hits, especially Martha and the Vandellas singing “Dancing in the Street.” Lynn often offers to play this song, and on “a good day,” Rhonda invariably shimmies and shakes to Lynn’s version of the song. Lynn uses syncopation and other musical surprises heavily, to add interest to the song and encourage Rhonda’s musical engagement. It doesn’t matter whether or not Rhonda is dancing in rhythm, as the goal isn’t to regain functional movement. A positive emotional experience is the priority.   

Rhythmic choices – tempo, meter, and accent/syncopation – matter for all musicians, but for music therapists, these choices are made with the clients’ goals in mind.

That’s how music therapists do rhythm differently.

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