Per Wikipedia, taken originally from Winold, 1975, chapter 3, among the general characteristics of music from the common practice period is "rhythmic gestures of a limited number of rhythmic units, sometimes based on a single or alternating pair".

Then, a rhythmic gesture is given as "any durational pattern that, in contrast to the rhythmic unit, does not occupy a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses on an underlying metric level".

To me, the explanation seems to describe a compositional unit that is fully separate from the rhythmic structure of the broader composition, and yet, the name "rhythmic gesture" suggests, to the contrary, an essential relation to overall rhythmic structure.

Essentially, given my state of knowledge, I find the definition unhelpful, and I wonder whether the relation between rhythm and a rhythmic gesture might be explained more carefully, in a way that also clarifies the distinction with rhythmic unit.

  • To me, the name "rhythmic gesture" does not imply an essential relation to overall rhythmic structure - it implies hand-waving and shrugging instead. It implies that the precise scale and extent of these rhythmic gestures are not important: for the scholar's purpose, they could cover the entire piece or take up single phrases only.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 24, 2022 at 13:06
  • I'm withholding any input until we can manage to access the Winold source rather than Wikipedia's digestion of it. As usual, it's frustratingly available in snippet view, making it clear that the important page is 239 and that 244 is also significant. The 244 snippet also makes it likely that this "not whole number of units" requirement has misunderstood Winold: He says that the 1st movement of Well-Tempered Clavier "relies on one rhythmic gesture"—and... Feb 24, 2022 at 14:54
  • ... and it's just a full measure of arpeggiated 16th notes, unless he really is distinguishing the division of the hands and sustain of a couple of notes in a way that would seem wrong-headed. Feb 24, 2022 at 14:55
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    Despite what might be understood reasonably from the treatment in Wikipedia by one among the laity, such as myself, the comments offered here suggest that the term is not one of common or standard use, and perhaps is not instructive in its current role in the article. At the moment, the presentation is based on a single author writing almost 50 years ago. Maybe someone with adequate knowledge of the subject would like to consider a better way to present the subject.
    – brainchild
    Feb 25, 2022 at 3:38
  • 1
    @Andy: Occurrence of the term seems to have been falling during the term preceding Winold's publication.
    – brainchild
    Feb 28, 2022 at 15:08

3 Answers 3


From not reading the Windold book but having read the Wikipedia section given in your rhythmic gesture link...

A pulse on an underlying rhythmic level is given by the meter of the music, whether that be constant for the entire piece (as was very common during the common practice period) or not. For example, in 3/4 time, each pulse is a quarter note long. It is arguably debatable how long each pulse of a compound meter is - an 8th note or a dotted quarter note for 6/8, for example - but based on the sources I learned about compound meter from, I personally assume the longer note value is the pulse (e.g. 6/8 is a compound duple meter with 2 pulses per measure, so each pulse is a dotted quarter note long).

The claim that a rhythmic unit can be multiple pulses long mainly seems to be there to allow syncopated rhythms that overlap adjacent pulses to count as rhythmic units (e.g. the infamous syncopated opening measure of melody of Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G Minor).

A rhythmic gesture is therefore any rhythm that is not a whole number of pulses long, while a rhythmic unit is any rhythm that is a whole number of pulses long.

A rhythmic unit can therefore take up anything from one pulse (e.g. one quarter note in a piece in 4/4 time) through a full measure through an 8-measure phrase to an entire piece.

A rhythmic gesture seems to therefore be fairly useless for music analysis purposes unless its definition is wrong and it can be a whole number of pulses long or unless we assume that a rhythmic gesture can be less than one pulse long (e.g. two running 16th notes in a 4/4 piece). The phrase "rhythmic gestures of a limited number of rhythmic units" implies that a rhythmic gesture is more than one rhythmic unit or pulse long, though.

It is probably the easiest to find rhythmic gestures in music with pickup notes and anacruses - for example, the first movement (in 2/4 time) of Beethoven's 9th Symphony has a phrase that starts on a 32nd-note (!!) pickup and ends several quarter notes plus that 32nd note later according to Wikipedia's article on Beethoven's 9th. That phrase is therefore a good example of a rhythmic gesture, as it is a fraction of a pulse longer than a whole number of pulses long. Note its multiple uses of a double-dotted 8th note followed by a 32nd note as a rhythmic unit.

I'd like to think that rhythmic gestures are analogous to rhythmic motives and phrases while rhythmic units are portions of motives, but rhythmic gestures not being whole numbers of pulses long and therefore rarely fitting neatly in phrases puts a pretty big wrench in that.

  • I feel like you get to it in the final paragraph: Whether what Wikipedia/Windold mean by "rhythmic gesture," I would personally use it in a way synonymous with "rhythmic motive", that is, a recognizable pattern that is re-used in a meaningful way (e.g. Beethoven's 5th). I would assume that an author would choose it to avoid confusion if they're using "motive" in a strictly melodic way, or maybe differentiating from motif, or leitmotif from both, etc. etc. But I think maybe the source is using it in a different way.... Feb 24, 2022 at 14:43
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    fixed that for you @AndyBonner
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Feb 24, 2022 at 16:23

Not an expert, but to me it seems quite clear what Winold meant.

First let's have a look at the term itself: "rhythmic gesture". I think the word "gesture" is important here. It suggests approximation, blurryness, something where exactness isn't a requirement. To me it seems a term you'd use to point to a resemblance, a vague similarity, but without perfect or absolute adherence to rules or conventions.

Reading the snippet from the Winold book, to me it seems to be a more formal definition of what I'm proposing:

The rhythmic gesture in contrast to the rhythmic unit, is not limited by the underlying metric structure; its beginning, end and length are subject to varying interpretations based upon consideration of factors contributing to cohesiveness and separation. Strict or varied repetition of a rhythmic gesture tends to establish the identify of the gesture. The use of similar durations, dynamics, pitches, texture, timpres etc. tends to establish the cohesiveness.

I.e. where rhythmic units (and their metric boundaries) are very well defined (it's literally a "unit") a rhythmic gesture is not. It's like a reference to something, but with some liberty, not identical. It's like a rhythmic approximation of something and additionally depends on other qualities (ones we don't associate with rhythm, like durations, pitches, dynamics etc.) to suggest a specific resemblance to the referred.

This thing that's being referred might be something external: a genre, a feeling, a style etc. (e.g. "a rhythmic gesture suggestive of a waltz") or it might be a loose identifier within a piece itself. (e.g. "this piece has 3 distinct rhythmic gestures" where each gesture is independent of the other, but within the gestures themselves the lines are blurry, sometimes it's maybe just half a bar, then a bit further it's 2 bars etc. )


I think of this as the abstract concepts of meter and the regular point at which beats can be multiplied or subdivided, and concrete rhythms actually played or notated.

The wiki article shows first how beats can be divided or multiplied evenly.

Then in shows how regular beat subdivisions can be classified into four rhythmic unit categories.

Up to that point the descriptions are all abstract. None of those patterns are presented as music actually played. It's just a way to map out a bunch of "nodes" in time where regular beats can be regularly divided. You might think of that "map of nodes in time" like the grid lines that can be drawn over a painting which delineate linear perspective. Nothing in the actual composition - painting or music - needs to coincide exactly with those lines or nodes, but conceptually they are understood to exist and are the basis for our perception of space and rhythm.

In music, when actual, concrete music (I don't mean Musique concrète) is played, typical rhythms are used which can be associated with the various four rhythmic unit types. So, a rhythm like...

enter image description here

...you don't have merely the beat or a rhythmic unit, but rather a complex combination of duration that can be classified by those abstract categories.

First there is rest on the beginning of the pulse and so it's anacrustic, the next three sixteenth notes are of the metric subdivision category, the next dotted eighth note and sixteenth are of the intrametric category, the following dotted quarter note is of the multiple level of subdivision, and the following eighth note does not coincide with an initial strong pulse so it is occurring as a contrametric category. Then that two bar pattern repeats.

When the two bar rhythm is considered it is not simple the realization of simple beat divisions or multiples, nor merely one of the rhythmic unit patterns. That kind of complex assemble of rhythmic elements is a rhythmic gesture.


Regarding all the commentary about how the Wikipedia article quotes from Winold, I don't have the book, but can view portions of it in Google Books snippets. The original book contains the following line...

p.239 The rhythmic gesture, in contrast to the rhythmic unit, is not limited by the underlying metric structure; its beginning, end, and length are subject to varying interpretations based upon consideration of factors contributing to cohesiveness and separation.

That seems to have been worked into the wiki article not as a direct quotation and with significant modification...

A rhythmic gesture [is any durational pattern that,] in contrast to the rhythmic unit, [does not occupy a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses on an] underlying metric [level.]

I bracketed the modifications added in the wiki article.

Notice the difference between the original... "its ... length are subject to varying interpretations" and the wiki wording... "any durational pattern that ... does not occupy a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses".

The wiki article introduces a specific notion about length measured in incomplete pulses that is not in the original text.

In fact, Winold seems to make the opposite point: the length of a rhythmic gesture is subject to interpretation.

Laster in the original book there is this statement...

p.252 The gestures themselves range in length from a single measure with just one sounding note to five-measure durational patterns which might be analyzed as consisting of two successive rhythmic gestures.

While that is certainly not Winold laying out a definition, it reads to me like Winold considers a single measure to be a possible rhythmic gesture length. Obviously a single measure's duration would be 'a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses on an underlying metric level.'

The idea "does not occupy a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses" seems to have been grafted onto Winold's original writing, without clear citation, and resulting in a meaning different that what Winold meant.

Below is the most I can assemble from Google Books snippets.

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • Good enough for me. I also like what we can see in the first snippet about the idea that repetition helps define "gesture." Mar 1, 2022 at 20:37
  • @AndyBonner, funny thing is, even though I think the wiki author really mangled things, I'd now very much like to get a copy of that Winold book, along with The Rhythmic Structure of Music. Mar 1, 2022 at 21:00
  • Agreed. I'll probably be able to drop by and take a look at it within the next couple of weeks. It does look like it was very influential. NB it's actually a Winold essay within a collected book, Aspects of twentieth-century music, under editors DeLone and Wittlich. Mar 1, 2022 at 21:34

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