I just re-watched the video where Jacob Collier explains harmony and how harmony uses the combination of notes to express an emotion. Using tools like adding more notes, rearranging the notes(invertion) or even leaving out notes, you come up with vocabulary to express an emotion to tell a story.
That got me thinking, could rhythm do the same? Could rhythm express emotions?
My conclusion is that it is possible and I will attempt to explain why and how. Just like how people typically describe major as happy and minor as sad, I will use generalisation like that to help illustrate how rhythm expresses emotion. Next, I am a drum set player, so I will be talking about rhythm very much like a drum set drummer. So without further ado, let me explain.
I think the easiest illustration about how rhythm expresses emotion is with a reception bell. Imagine that you are a receptionist and when you hear a bell, you would get up from your seat to the counter to serve your customer. The first customer rang once and waited patiently. The second customer was in a hurry, hence he rang the bell repeatedly. If you hear the bell once, it doesn’t mean much to you. However, if you hear multiple rings, you will immediately know that the customer is impatient and is rushing you.
How is that possible? It is the same bell, the sound stays the same and yet you can hear emotion. Why? Rhythm.
The first way rhythm can express emotion is by volume. How soft or loud you play something. Imagine closing a door. Closing normally wouldn’t invoke anything, but slamming the door would immediately send the message that you are annoyed. To generalise, the more passionate your emotion, the louder you play. The more intimate your emotion, the softer you play.
The second way is by tempo or pace. Imagine two guys, one guy is bored, so he taps the table with a slow tempo; sighing after a few taps. Now the second guy is excited, he is about to receive something! He also taps the table, but with a slightly faster tempo. Now think of another example, think about trying to get someone out of the house because you guys are going to be late. If it is still early, but going to be, your reminders will be few. However, if you guys are already late, you will rush the person by constantly reminding the other party that you are late! Tempo can express emotion very well. Typically slower tempos expresses Laziness, Boredom, perhaps Seriousness. Faster tempos expresses Joy, Happiness and eventually Rush, Thrill and Frantic.
The third way I would say Space or variation in tempo. Space between the notes you play. If you think about Anxiety or Panic. You will know that the feeling isn’t a constant feeling. It is a sudden jerk, then you trying to slow yourself down, but failing then you get into a panic attack again. It is irregular. If you break out of the tempo framework, you will realise that sometimes there is a need to break out of tempo to express certain emotions. Think about the very common Retardation in music. It typically gives the listener a sense of release. Like the listener can finally catch their breath. It is the end. It is finally after an exam paper and the time stops, it doesn’t matter if the result is good or bad, it ended. Think about speeding up, speeding up from a slower tempo gives the feeling of urgency. It no longer functions normally, you have to rush. From fast to slow gives the feeling of resolution and release. Slow to fast gives the feeling of urgency.
The fourth way I believe is the sounds you choose. Think about every horror movie, you hear chains rattling and cymbal scratches and you feel scared and alone. Imagine replacing chains rattling with a snare hit. It will not sound scary at all. Or perhaps replacing the sound of bells with a ladder slamming on the floor. One gives the feeling of tranquility, one gives a big shock.
The fifth one I would say value of notes. Think of a straight beat vs a swing beat. One makes you feel like you want to head bang, the other makes you sway left to right. A simple 4/4 Vs 6/8 would prove my point too. They feel very different. 4/4 would give a constant pace, something is always moving properly. 6/8 would left you feel as if you are dragging your feet, taking deep breaths as you move along.
I am pretty sure that there are more points than the ones that I have come up with. Rhythm affects the way music feel in so many ways. We as drummers may be just an overly decorated metronome, but we can express emotions in so many ways! Why are we settling only for basic stuff? We as drummers should learn how to express ourselves behind the drum kit. Be sensitive to emotions and learn how to translate it to rhythms.
May we be better musicians for you O Lord! 🙂