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.
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.
A link contains the following about word sounds/lengths and their meanings:
pulchritude. A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves. (Entry written by David Foster Wallace)