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In a 1957 interview, Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, a legendary tabla (an Indian percussion instrument) player remarked that “rhythm is the essence of life. Without rhythm, man can not move a step forward in any sphere of activity.” He went on to point out the rhythmic beats subconsciously created in daily life; the pace at which we walk, the rate at which we breathe, and the frequency of our pulse were all, in his eyes, different beats in the larger, more complex song of life. Today, science confirms his belief. Everything that he mentioned is part of a larger Circadian rhythm, a biological clock that times everything from brain wave activity to hormone production in the body. Although Thirakwa was never formally educated, her nonetheless intuited the existence of such a cycle.
As an obsessive artist who would practice his instrument for up to sixteen hours a day, Thirakwa literally walked and breathed in cadence. Throughout the world, it is the recurring pattern of rhythm that provides uniformity and structure to our lives. As a tabla player myself, I have perceived the world through a rhythmic lens all my life. Every morning on the way to school, the pattern of vehicles passing my car makes the song that prepares me for a new day. My deep rooted fixation I have on finding cadences started before I was born. When my mother was expecting me, she would place her Walkman speaker to her stomach and play everything in her record collection, from Bach to Ravi Shankar. When I started kicking to the beat of the music, my mom knew that percussion would become a central part of my life.
Growing up, I was only exposed to Indian classical music, but by the time I reached the fifth grade, I started listening to the radio and discovering my own musical taste. At that time, I had just started playing the tabla and I quickly started noticing parallels between Eastern and Western music. For one, just as a large majority of pop songs fall under 4/4 time structure, most Indian classical compositions are composed in teen taal, a direct variant of the 4/4 structure. I always wondered why there was such a striking similarity, considering the vast cultural difference between the two musical genres. This question lingered in the back of my mind for many years; it was only recently that I came across the field of psycho-acoustics, and I realized that there were entire schools dedicated to studying what I had pondered for so long. From reading, I learned that there are certain base elements to music that are universal, such as the aesthetic of perfectly aligned intervals and the fact that human speech tends to follow a duple rhythm. These notions are deeply ingrained in the human subconscious, crossing geographical and historical boundaries. Our basic sense of rhythm is at the core of the human experience, and realizing this made me appreciate the truism that “music is the universal language” to a deeper extent.
Another uncanny similarity that I found was the emphasis placed on rhythm in cultural literature. For thousands of years, indigenous tribes have used claps, stomps, and chants as forms of communication, but it is interesting to see how that sound-based practice has translated into written word. For example, the Bhagawad Gita, an eighteen chapter Indian scripture composed about six thousand years ago, is entirely in verse. In Sanskrit, the Gita’s rhyme scheme is called anushtup chandas, a form in which each verse is four 8 syllable phrases. When orated, there are even intonations at different syllables for emphasized meaning much like in spoken Mandarin. Western literature also has a long standing tradition of composing in verse. Perhaps the most impressive example is Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which was composed about three thousand years ago in dactylic hexameter. When the epics were performed traditionally in ancient Greece, the oration was accompanied by music, and pitch changes in accented Greek at specific syllables complimented the melody of the music. How can it be that these two works of literature, composed thousands of years apart in different regions of the world could have such striking similarities in how they were composed and orated? I believe that this is because of how deep rooted the sense of rhythm is in human nature. Rhythmic patterns make us tap our feet and nod our heads subconsciously. We appreciate the temporal symmetry in a familiar beat pattern and the predictability of cadence.
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