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Rhythmic Concepts


Diverse systems of music express rhythm it in distinctive ways though one will generally find that beats of 3 and 4 are commonly used. In the West, Time Signatures of 4x4, 8x4, 3x4, 6x4 etc are standard but composers have also increasingly gravitated towards signatures such as 7x4 and more recently experimented with non-standard patterns as well.  Western Classical often uses rhythm subtly, not accenting the beats in every measure or two throughout a piece, as opposed to many other systems which are more obviously beat-centric. 

  • Systems like Indian Classical use time cycles (tala) in addition to time signatures with 5 types of beat durations (pulse/gati/nadai) of 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9.
  • In North Indian music, these cycles are often expressed by syllabic patterns usually highlighted by percussion instruments like tabla.  
  • The Carnatic system employs a very systematic and sophisticated approach to rhythm and has several sets of talas such as 108 talas, 72 melakarta talas, chhanda talas (based entirely on singular poetic meters employed by 16th century composer Arunagirinathar)
  • But the most popular is the 35-tala system which is based on 5 variations of 7 principal talas, proposed in the 1500s, which are expressed through beats, finger counts and wave of the hand (rendered always by vocalists and often by the listeners).
  • Prominent Talas: There are hundreds of talas ranging from 3 units per cycle to 128 units per cycle but the following four are most common: 

1. Adi - 8 units per cycle: (A composite of 4+2+2 with beat durations (pulse rates) of 4, 3, 5, 7 and 9). 

2. Roopakam - 3 units (3/4 again of beat durations as above.

3. Mishra Chapu - 7 units (3+2+2/6+4+4)

4. Khanda Chapu - 5 units (2+1+2/4+2+4)

  • The pulse/beat durations are often vocalised/rendered percussively like the patterns in examples below:

3 - ta ki Ta

4 - ta ka dhi mi

5 - ta ka ta ki Ta

7 - ta ki Ta ta ka dhi mi 

9 - ta ka dhi mi ta ka ta ki Ta

  • Western musicians and composers will often find that a time cycle may not always correspond to the Western Measure but may sometimes be the equivalent of 2 or more measures. 
  • They will also find that different talas even of the same number of beats could have varying accent points, which influence the feel of the composition. For instance, three talas of 8 units have been partitioned as 4+2+2 or 3+2+3 or 5+1+2 within the 35-tala set.