Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/September 1903/Pulse and Rhythm




THE close connection between pulse and rhythm has been speculated upon since the fourth century before Christ. Herophile, Avicenna, Savonarola, Saxon, Fernel and Samuel Hafen-Refferus have successively conjectured that the rhythmic phenomenon of pulse is in some way responsible for our sense of 'beat.' The speculation was fascinating. It could not become convincing without the help of data capable of being furnished only by very recently invented instruments and by recently accumulated knowledge.

A sense of rhythm, probably due to instinct, is found well developed low down in the animal series.[1] This fact is significant when one considers that the theory usually advanced and accepted is that physical activities of a regularly recurrent nature have created this sense in man. The beat of the pestle used by primitive man to crush grain, the blows of the flail, the rhythm of the quern and the spinning wheel, the rock of the cradle, and in short the entire series of industries where a regular beat or reciprocal motion suggests alternate action have been put forward as the probable origin of the dance, musical and verbal rhythm, and at length of the beat of music.[2]

Tempting as is this theory which associates the origin of rhythm with the development of ordered human activity, a rhythmic sound, call or cry is first found coexistent with the first complete circulatory system, heart with valves and blood vessels. This first appears in the insect family and there too, in the saltoria of the orthoptera (commonly known as crickets, grasshoppers and locusts) appears this conjunction of hearing, ability to call or stridulate, a nervous system and valvular heart. The common existence of these phenomena does not prove that the beat of the rudimentary insect heart led to rhythm, but it suggests, at least, that this combination has been subjectively fruitful of recurrent sound as a form of sexual and probably of pleasurable activity.

Mr. S. H. Scudder has put down the songs of these little creatures in musical notation,[3] giving them after careful consideration the attribute of rhythm. Unfortunately the circulatory system of the insect world has scarcely been investigated. As a curiosity, yet as a possible venture, a parallelism may be suggested between the stridulations of a cricket, which have been counted as occurring at the rate of between two and three chirps per second[4] and the number of pulse waves peculiar to very active insects or one hundred and fifty closures of the heart valves in one minute.[5]

Inspecting in a very cursory manner the higher phylums of the animal kingdom, the authority of numerous investigators can be given for the perfect rhythmic quality of bird songs. The writer can vouch for it that the cackle of one guinea hen during an entire summer went with clock-like regularity at the rate of eighty-eight to ninety-two cackles per minute. The faster cackling being a laughably accurate sign of the growing excitement attendant on the laying of an egg, said by the owner to occur at about eleven o'clock every morning.

The scientific study of rhythm, so far as man is concerned, has been approached almost wholly from the side of its conjunction with literature. Looked at from that side, it is not strange that the testimony could never be mathematically exact and emphatic. The only data which are of sufficient accuracy to prove that the rhythmic phenomena of pulse first impressed on our consciousness that which can accurately be called rhythm, are to be found in the metronomic denotations of musical compositions. It is there and there only that the brain has been able systematically to externalize the rhythm most natural to it with a sense of method and order approximating instrumental exactitude and capable of an exact expression and measure in number. These furnish only a trace, but a trace sufficient when one keeps in mind the havoc that conscious intellect can always play with things strictly natural.

While making a bibliographical search for anything treating of this musical side of the subject, one suggestive title only was found. It was under 'pulse' in the Larousse Encyclopedia and covered the subject to a degree alarming to a new and anxious investigator. It 'Nouvelle methode facile et curieuse pour connaître le pouls par les notes de la musique.' (New method, easy and curious for gauging the pulse by musical notes.) François Nicolas Marquet, Nancy, 1747. When found, the quaint little book proved lamentably insufficient. In its time there was neither metronome nor sphygmograph.

In the introduction to this little treatise which in its day seems to have created quite a stir—'amateurs in search of novelties bought it for fun, and kept it by good taste,' M. Marquet naïvely tries to disarm his critics by saying that he already seemed to hear them object: 'it is certainly a very bizarre matter this learning to know the pulse by musical notes,' adding, 'one could answer them, it is not more strange to paint the pulse with notes than to paint the sound of music with those same notes; to paint numbers with figures, and finally to paint words with letters.' In this way the good doctor confounds throughout the treatise the idea that music notes and measures could make a very good sign-board on which to denote exactly where a morbid pulse fails of being normal, and his discovery that a minute of his time was usually placed at the same rhythmic rate per minute as accompanies a normal pulse, which pulse, for want of a better chronometer than the long hand of a clock, he places at one beat per second.

This little work, imperfect as it is, and in spite of all its limitations, renders clear, tangible and visible the failure, already mentioned, made by those who thus far have occupied themselves with the question, to give consideration to the statistics furnished by musical compositions through their metronomic denotations. Even the ear aided by the metronome and the pulse recorded by the sphygmograph need to prove the influence of the latter on the former, the unconscious record made in musical composition of the recolleotion by the mind from an indefinite number of beats per second of a certain stated number, which repeats itself in one form of union after another by different composers at different periods and in different lands.

The material from which statistics can be drawn is so unlimited that, for want of space, two examples only will be considered, the first dealing with the metronomic markings of the Beethoven Sonatas and the second with popular music.

Out of forty-three metronomic markings, taken straight through from the beginning of the first volume of the Beethoven Sonatas—the four standard editions as a working basis—nineteen are set to a rhythm of seventy-two and seventy-six beats to a minute, a rate exactly that of the average normal, healthy, adult human pulse; a pulse given by the best authorities as lying between seventy and seventy-five pulsations in the same time. According to fuller statistics, the physical pulse, varied by the time of day and the effect of meals, ranges from a little below sixty to a little over eighty. Within this limit all the rhythmic markings of these sonatas lie. Three standing at fifty-six and fifty-eight beats per minute, contrary to expectation, belonging to fast movements undoubtedly marked slower on account of the difficulty the fingers would experience in performing the notes as fast as the imagination would direct. The average of the entire one hundred and forty-seven markings given by the four editors. Von Bülow, Steingräer, Köhler and Germer, was sixty-four and four tenths rhythmic beats per minute. The one sonata marked by Beethoven himself bearing the figures 69, 80, 92, 76, 72 for the different movements. Allegro, Vivace, Adagio, Largo, Allegro risoluto.

If with the eye fixed on the second-hand of a watch or a clock the long meter doxology be sung, every one of the equally accented notes entering simultaneously with the tick of each consecutive second, it will become at once apparent that the melody is delivered at a rhythmic rate of sixty beats to the minute. Should one in the same breath hum Yankee-doodle, sounding each of its accented notes, at the same rate, it will be found that these two melodies, standing at the extremes of the sublime and the ridiculous, the one in character slow, the other fast, the first combining the utmost dignity and breadth, the second ludicrously vapid and thoughtless, are both set to precisely the same length of rhythmic time by the clock. In the same manner the adagios, allegros, prestos of the great master's sonatas unfold to pretty much the same span of a passing moment. In his sonata 'Les Adieux,' op. 81, the adagio or slow movement and the allegro or fast movement are both set to one rhythmic unit to the second. The impression of slowness or rapidity in the music is due rather to the character of the context and the number of notes to be played in the divisions within the minute than to the actual clock time it takes to perform the rhythmic unit.

Seventeen letters were addressed to as many band-masters asking them for the 'beat' usually used in their conducting. The answers invariably brought 'from 64 to 72 rhythmic beats per minute,' that being probably the time to which countless soldiers had found it most convenient and agreeable to march. Those wishing to investigate on their own account will find it interesting to clutch at their pulse, whenever a whistling street boy passes, and even a jangling hotel piano might in the same connection have sometimes a 'reason for being.' More often than accident warrants, it will be found that these also 'with nature's heart in tune' were 'concerting harmonies,'

Metronomic Markings per Rhythm of the Different Movements of Twelve Beethoven Sonatas.

PSM V63 D432 Metronomic markings per rhythm of the different movements of twelve beethoven sonatas.png

The foregoing examples, although following the pulse in their exactness, are still for scientific purposes not quite what may be desired. The heart's action varies. So do musical tempi. Both are disturbed by the slightest exciting or nervous influences. Still the track, though faint at times, sometimes quite effaced by conscious effort, is there; corroborated through a hundred different channels. One distinguished psychologist[6] finds that a subject could repeat simple intervals without accent with greatest exactness when these intervals lay between 0.4 and 0.7 seconds. It takes but a simple problem in arithmetic to see that this agrees with from 75 to 86 rhythmic beats per minute, or the region of pulsation common to the human pulse. Another[7] on conducting a series of experiments on rhythm, 'the first and most important object of which was to determine what the mind did with a series of simple auditory impressions in which there was absolutely no change of intensity, pitch, quality or tone interval,' finds that the pulse seemed at times to impose a grouping in which the clicks coming nearest to the time of the heart beats were accented.

To Professor Bolton[8] must be given the credit of having successfully found the means by which rhythm can be permanently differentiated from time in music. He says this general principle, arrived at by the same experiments, may be stated: "The conception of a rhythm demands a perfectly regular sequence of impressions within the limits of one second and one hundredth of a second. When a longer interval was introduced into the series, the impressions coming between the long intervals fell together into a group but they did not form an organic unity. There was no pleasure in such a rhythm. Something seemed to be looked for in this longer interval which was wanting." Why?

No matter how slowly one sound follows another, time, as understood in music, can still be a characteristic of the sequence. A clock may strike this minute and not again for an hour, but time is still being measured. A rhythm, however, can be said to exist only when sounds succeed each other so as to fall within the same limited horizon of attention. This differentiation has not to this day been clearly made by authors of musical encyclopedias and dictionaries, they having been satisfied with considering rhythm as simply similar in music to meter in verse.

Bearing these statements in mind, it seems improbable that the mere physical activities and industries of primitive peoples, such as cradle-rocking, spinning and grinding should have been so constantly of one rhythm as to impress accidentally a beat of such uniform variation, extending within fifteen pulsations difference a minute (from 65 to 80) on nearly all musical compositions, nor must it be forgotten, as has been said before, that it is these compositions which furnish the only means by which the human brain could, thanks to the metronome, so accurately and sub-consciously give record to the rhythm most natural to it. This rhythm for physical as well as psychological reasons must, it is submitted, in all probability have been suggested, coordinated and regulated by the phenomenon of pulse. The first and patent objection to this theory will be that we have no conscious cognizance of the arterial beat within us. The objection is however fully met by the well-known law that, 'one unvarying action on the senses fails to give any perception whatever.' For familiar examples, we have no conscious sensory impressions from the whirling of the earth, the weight of the air or the weight of our bodies. Yet, inevitably, the recurrent arterial beat, must have left its record and impress on the unconscious and subliminal brain, guiding and determining the conscious and audible expressions. Nor is it without its supporting proof that where the insect's heart beat is 150 to the minute, the insect 's chirp runs to the same speed; and where the human heart beat is 60 to 85 to the minute, human musical rhythm runs within the same limits.

Mr. Fiske says, in his 'Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy,' not only must all motions be rhythmical, but 'every rhythm, great or small, must end in some redistribution, be it general or local, of matter and motion.' It is not probable that a dainty rhythmic wave of color external in character would make its impression on the brain, and the latter in turn remain unaffected by a—relatively speaking—thumping cataract of a pulse impulse. Some disturbance of the brain tissue must occur from this vibration, reaching in course the very portion allotted to music. The basilar artery, the brain's basic artery, feeds the chorda tympani by a direct channel, whereas the rest of the cranial tract is fed by ramifications of its ramifications. The stronger surging is therefore directed against the auditory tract. It may be urged that in that case the brain would know but one rhythm. It might be so were it not that 'the whole cerebral and central nervous organism seems a happy adjustment of fixity of habit not too fixed, and susceptibility not too susceptible.'[9]

"Perception of time duration is always a process and never a state—for us to perceive five seconds, something must durate five seconds, for us to perceive a year some definite sensation would have to durate a year."[10]

On these principles, imagining a composer seated quietly at his desk in the act of composition, is it not feasible to suppose that sub consciously to himself, and for want of a more intimately sympathetic conductor, a physical metronome was within him deflecting his rhythm to its standard? Contrary to the other arts, music has its birth and being entirely from within the human brain, and from within has been impressed a beat of far more rapid rate than the ictus of the recurrent industries already cited on its musical product. The suggestions all this calls forth are of course unlimited. To one we may give our fancy free rein. Mr. James Huneker in his exhaustive summing up of Chopin's music states that master's favorite metronome sign to be 88 to the minute. As 'people with considerable sensibility of mind and disposition have generally a quicker pulse than those with such mental qualification as resolution and steadiness of temper,' could one consider that the ailing Chopin's pulse helped his rhythmic tendency to 88, while the resolute steady Beethoven's was normal?

The arm of knowledge is long; it needs no yardstick with which to measure the stars. Can it feel the pulse of those who have long since crossed the boundaries that separate this world from the next?

  1. 'Descent of Man,' Darwin, D. Appleton & Co., p. 566.
  2. 'Rhythmus und Arbeit.' Karl Bücher, passim.
  3. 'The Songs of the Grasshoppers,' Am. Nat., Vol. II., p. 113.
  4. 'Proc. Boston Soc. Nat. Hist., October 23 1867.
  5. 'A Text-book of Entomology,' Packard, Macmillan, 1898, p. 401.
  6. 'The Psychology of Rhythm,' Am. Journ. of Psychol., January, 1902.
  7. American Journ. Psychol., Vol. VI., No. 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Herbert Nichols, Journ. of Psychol., Vol. VI., p. 60.
  10. Ibid.