Music Theory
Acoustic Composition
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Cyclical rhythms

Cyclical, or repeating, rhythms are all around us both in music and in life. These repeating rhythms are important in creating a sense of expectation and arrival in a musical composition. To get a better grasp on the idea of cyclical rhythms let’s look at some non-musical examples:

  • Sunrise and Sunset
  • Annual weather patterns
  • the ticking of a clock
  • breathing

As you can see these rhythms come in a variety of lengths and with a certain degree of variation. The sun doesn’t rise at the exact same time every morning, but it does always rise. Weather patterns can vary greatly from one year to the next, but, generally speaking, summer is hotter than winter. Ticking clocks and breathing tend to be so predictably periodic that most people can ignore them, but, perhaps because of this, a change in the pattern, say a sudden silence, becomes deafening.

Here are some examples of cyclical rhythms:

Notice that even though there’s some variation from one measure to the next, each example uses rhythms that easily fit into the meter. Cyclical rhythms don’t have to be strict repetitions so long as they are predictable and have a clear meter.

Practical Takeaway

There are many musical lessons we could take from these examples. Here are some thoughts on rhythms that would be helpful to keep in mind when listening, performing, and composing:

  • Repetition is good, but isn’t always necessary
  • Rhythm is ubiquitous in music: melodies, chord progressions, phrase structure, formal structures, and even movements in multi-movement works all have rhythm.
  • Long periods of predictability or unpredictability can be fatiguing to listen to
  • Repetition is good, but isn’t always necessary. When you do repeat something, try to alter it in some way during the repetition.