Link: Rhythmic novelty and repetition in Brubeck jazz, poetry

An article at Salon.com discusses how the unique rhythms in some of jazz musician Dave Brubeck’s work engage listeners:

“[Professor of music at Carleton College in Minnesota Justin]London says that Brubeck’s rhythms can play with the listener’s innate toe-tapping ability—the technical term is entrainment. “Whenever you start doing anything in rhythm the whole motor center of the brain starts lighting up.” He notes that musicians and nonmusicians do equally well on tests of this ability. It appears to be an innate skill, part of the way we interact socially. Asymmetrical meters may be appealing because they test people’s native entrainment ability and keep the brain more active while listening and performing. “The asymmetrical meters do make you work a little harder to make you stay along with them, and that’s part of their appeal, attraction and charm,” London says.

And this:

David Huron, a music professor at The Ohio State University, researches a variety of topics in music cognition, including the emotional effects of music and what makes tunes memorable. He says that musicologists tend to focus on novelty when discussing musical appeal, but in reality, “people prefer things that are familiar.” He says that in order to make songs such as “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” compelling, Brubeck had to balance the novelty of the rhythm with familiarity, particularly through repetition. “If you want to make things accessible to listeners, repetition is key. If he had just done a more Stravinsky-esque thing, playing around with these rhythms and not repeating them, then what we know from the research is that would be much less appealing to the listeners.”

Reading this article, I thought about how this rhythm interpretation could also apply to poetry: how the rhythm activates our brain (including the “motor center,” as it says above — we feel rhythm in our bodies, with poetry as well as music, I’d assert) and how much we like repetition — why else would there be so much rhyme (defined as repetition of word sounds) in poems?

And I’ve been wondering lately if the writing of poems — from a sound-sense — is mainly about repetitions. Regular repetitions of meter, of rhyme patterns — of course, free verse subverts this, but as the second quote above says, we like patterns. Patterns stick with us, they are often picked out by our brains even without us consciously noticing these patterns, and these patterns are often what stays in our memory. Yet as an artist, I’m skeptical of this hegemony of patterns. I’d like to question this, consider it a little, even if I’m not sure what I’d replace it with.

5 responses to “Link: Rhythmic novelty and repetition in Brubeck jazz, poetry

  1. Human minds can pick up on an amazing variety of patterns. European poetry focuses on the pattern of similar sounds at the ends of breath units, but Asian poetry focuses more on the pattern of syllable counts within breath units and Semitic poetry focuses on the repetition of root words in a phrase.

    One of the great things about being a poet in a multi-cultural environment is the ability to draw from all of these different traditions and match the sort of pattern we employ to the mood of the piece.

    Some thoughts are limericks and some are haiku. The hard part is figuring which are which.

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m glad to read what you said about those other traditions — I hadn’t thought of the patterns of breath like that. I have enjoyed trying to write poems in the repetition-of-consonant sounds in “Beowulf” as in Seamus Heaney’s translation. It is refreshing to write in these different quasi-voices. And I love your last line!

  2. I just posted a “Blue Rondeau” (in memoriam) and it ended up, without my trying, to be on this very theme I think. How rhythm engages the body and how his music helped me feel the rhythms in language. Robert Pinsky, whom I just started re-reading also wrote about how poetry is a very physical, bodily experience. I get what you mean about the “hegemony” though and I think that is what always attracted me to Brubeck’s music–When I heard that strange rhythm, my curiosity was piqued and I was immediately more engaged, focused and aware of rhythm as an entity, as a force.
    Thank you for this post–it has given me much to ponder…I stop pondering in your comments….and wander back to mine…

  3. This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately too. How much rhythmn and repetition and rhyme play into my writing the the writing I admire, as well as our earliest exposure to writing/reading/song–lullabyes, nursery rhumes, Dr. Zuess, fairy tales. I think a lot of writing is a kind of riffing, the way we borrow words, ideas, images from other writers and “riff” on them, improvise and make them our own. I’ve found this true for my blog hopping, finding in other blogs (such as this post) ideas that I’ve been playing with and then responding to them from that play, like two jazz musicians listening to each other and improvising off each others’s words, images, etc. They way you did after reading that article. It’s just one long converstion, but repeating ideas and expanding upon them over and over again. Hmmm . . . . Lot’s to play with here.

  4. Good point. I like your idea of riffing, of making new things by combining and branching off from other things, of building our own ideas from the bricks of other ideas. In a way, it reminds me of minds communing.

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