BASICS: CYCLES

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Yet another core principle of rhythm is cycles.

Natural phenomena known as cycles are constantly in motion around us. Some examples include the earth’s rotation around the sun, the four seasons of the year, or even the 24 hour daily cycle. There’s no easy explanation for cyclic patterns, other than the fact that they are all governed by time.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the French writer, is known for saying “the more things change, the more they remain the same” and although he may not have been referring to cycles, it’s a fairly accurate description of how cycles behave as a function of time. As time passes, things usually return to their original state and the process begins anew.

Rhythmic cycles are no different from those in nature and they exhibit the same behavior. They can be played simultaneously and repeated throughout a piece of music. Centuries ago, Africans observed the natural cycles of life and eventually applied some of those rules to rhythms. Today cycles are better known as ‘loops’.

In our daily lives, we use minutes and seconds to mark the passage of time, but in the world of rhythm, we use beats and measures. Whether you’re operating in 4/4 or 3/4 time signature, a pulse or beat is always present.

In his essay, Rhythmic Principles, C. K. Ladzepko, a master drummer from the Anlo-Ewe people of the Republic of Ghana, describes this pulse as the main beat, also known as the primary or dominant beat.

In a complex interaction of beat schemes of varying rhythmic motions, the human mind normally seeks a focal point. Among the Anlo-Ewe, one of the integral beat schemes is dominant and the rest are perceived in cross rhythmic relationship to it. This dominant beat scheme is considered the main beat because of its strong accents in regular recurrence that pervade and regulate the entire fabric.

The flavor and energy of a main beat is of prime importance in Anlo-Ewe dance-drumming. A main beat possesses that character of regular energy or accent that runs throughout a composition as a unifying element and gives the cross rhythms as well as the entire composition, a unique quality of logical coherence.


Typically, a full cycle will consist of four pulses. This is another one of rhythm’s mysteries. People tend to gravitate to a revolving count of four beats as Ladzepko observes:

…in practice, the beat scheme of four units is the most commonly used. At any given tempo, the rhythmic motion of this beat scheme is the most moderate (not too slow or fast) and the most convenient as a focal point.

To better comprehend a main beat, it is structured so that it measures off equal increment of pulsations, the first of which normally bears an accent. These integral fractions or background pulsations are the major ornamental forces that give a main beat its distinct texture, flavor and character.


It seems people can instinctively feel the pulse of a tune even if it isn’t sounded. Let’s put it to a test. Can you ‘feel’ the pulse of the red block below without the presence of any sound?

4-Duple_yellow

In the above example the cycle is divided into four blocks. The cycle begins on the red block and returns to the beginning after traveling through each block. This repeats four times.

4-Triplet_yellow

In the above example the cycle is divided into three blocks. The cycle begins on the red block and returns to the beginning after traveling through each block. This repeats four times.

Sensing the pulse is an innate human ability and most of us possess it at a young age. Have you ever seen a one year old moving to a beat? According to this article in Psychology Today, it’s not as unusual as it seems. A fetus in a womb has auditory capabilities at 6-9 months of age. Could a mother’s heartbeat be audible during that time and exert some rhythmic influence on a newborn child?

Some people believe they have no rhythmic ability. But we believe if you can speak a language and count, then you already have the required skills that you need. What is language, if nothing else but a bunch of syllables shuffling to a certain cadence?

It might require a warmup to become reacquainted with your natural born talent, but counting combined with a little hand clapping or toe tapping can go a long way.

Ladzepko also refers to other cycles which are usually played against the main or primary beat. We will review those cycles in a future post. For the moment, keep in mind the main beat consisting of four pulses.


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