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Western music generally uses a limited set of metrical rhythms — simple and compound meters in accent groupings of 2, 3, or 4.1 With exceptions, of course, this is true in the bulk of classical music, jazz, and popular music. Even less common groupings, such as 5 or 7, still feature a regular accent pattern.

The precursors of this music, however, did not necessarily feature metrical rhythm. Gregorian chant tends to follow the linguistic rhythm of the text, rather than fitting the text into a strict metrical pattern. (Or is this a fallacy on my part?)

How (and if possible, why) did Western music evolve in this direction — in contrast to other musical cultures that use less strict, or more varied, metrical structures?


1 From Wikipedia (Metre)

Metrical rhythm, by far the most common class in Western music, is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a fixed unit (beat, see paragraph below), and normal accents reoccur regularly, providing systematic grouping (bars, divisive rhythm).

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    I'm sure there are others here more qualified to give a proper answer, but I think the key is likely not in the prosody of spoken language but in the rhythms of work and dance.
    – Theodore
    Sep 23 at 20:01
  • @Theodore Why not both? Sep 24 at 3:29

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Disclaimer: This is just some thoughts of mine. But the comment field is just too limited ...

The separation of rhythms in binary or ternary meters is something the follows quite naturally from language (as long as stresses fall fairly regularly each pattern can be decomposed in rather small subpatterns). Ancient greek poetry (which is believed to having been recited in some sung in some way) had quite regular forms of stress. So regularity as artistic form is something that is nothing recent at all.

Also regularity is quite helpful for polyphony (especially if improvised) and dances (that rely on combining certain steps which gets really hard when the music is irregular).

We should also keep in mind that even medieval music theorists did use certain rhythmic patterns or modes to describe music – which kind of presets a sort of preform of more modern regularity.

So I suppose that regularity is something that is a natural (but not necessary) component of rhythm.

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  • This dovetails with some speculation of my own, which is to wonder if it has to do with music primarily being ceremonial/religious versus being primarily for entertainment. Perhaps ceremonial/religious music is more beholden to linguistic rhythms, whereas entertainment music is better served by stricter meters. Polyphony — or, perhaps more accurately, counterpoint — is an interesting thought, being a unique contribution from Western music. Perhaps the reason other cultures tend to have freer metrical structures (or perhaps I'm wrong about that) is that they weren't "beholden" to counterpoint.
    – Aaron
    Sep 23 at 20:22
  • I was going to make this point, that Greek music was metered. Somewhere in Taruskin's rambling History of Western Music, he devotes a page or two to combatting the "evolutionary fallacy", the notion that if B followed A it means that B was better than A, or even that A "developed" into B, or that B was "more complex" than A, or that the practitioners of A would have done B if they had just worked it out yet. At the same time as Gregorian chant, there were other practices that were strongly pulsed and metered (Cantigas de Santa Maria, anyone?). I suspect there was a vast undercurrent of... Sep 23 at 21:14
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    ... of folk practice that was diatonic, pulsed, and metered—fyddel tunes have always all sounded the same. :-) Sep 23 at 21:15
  • Agree with the last sentence - a rhythm isn't a rhythm unless it's regular - something like a pattern is only a pattern if it repeats. Dictionary definition of 'rhythm' is too long for here, but suffice to say that a regular (rhythmic) heartbeat is good, whereas arrythmia might not be. +1..
    – Tim
    Sep 24 at 8:08
  • @Tim I wouldn’t go as far to claim that a rhythm strictly requires regularity. It is not hard to conceive irregular rhythmic patterns that in fact do not repeat, but still feel natural. Also a medical comparison is at most polemic. A pattern does not require exact repetition to be identified as such.
    – Lazy
    Sep 24 at 10:51

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