top of page

Theories of Rhythm

Although the notion of rhythm has its core meaning in the field of music, it cuts across different spheres of human thought and action. This research project seeks to investigate rhythmic phenomena on their various temporal scales, whether in the context of natural functions (infra-, ultra- and circadian rhythms, lunar, solar and seasonal temporality references, etc), or through the cultural and social expressions of rhythms (the rhythms of music, the working week, calendars of rites and festivals, temporalities of social contexts and body techniques, etc). Although it has a transdisciplinary bibliography that draws on various sources (philosophies of duration, anthropology of time, phenomenology of temporal processes, chronobiology, etc.), the project began with the encounter between two complementary and basic reference works: "Elements of Rhythm" by Aristoxenus of Tarentum (ca 343 BC) and "Elements of Ritmanalysis" by Henri Lefebvre (1992 [2021]). Although separated by "disciplinary zones" (music X social sciences) and far apart in time, these two works approach rhythm from a very similar formal, empirical and perceptual perspective, and Lefebvre's work can be considered an indirect - and possibly unconscious - heir to Aristoxenus' conceptions. From these two authors we draw on concepts that help us think about rhythm in its performative and creative aspects: ritmanalysis and ritmopeia.


Rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre)

In his last work, published posthumously in 1992, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre proposed the foundations of a "new science in the process of being constituted": a study of rhythms in various contexts, but with an emphasis on the social. Éléments de Rhythmanalyse ('Elements of Rhythmanalysis') addresses the rhythm of the media day, of time manipulation, of "training", but also of music.

Lefebvre, with his ritmanalysis, proposes a "critique of the thing" ("there is nothing inert in the world... there are no things, only very different rhythms") and a reading of the "public" rhythms of the world from the measure of our internal, biological, psychological, in his words: "secret" rhythms. "Elements of Ritmanalysis" is considered a social science essay. It tackles topics such as the media journey, training, the manipulation of time and also music, from a "listener" perspective (although Lefebvre knew how to play the piano and elaborates some insights inspired by his practical musical experience).


Rhythmopoeia (Aristoxenos)

Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a disciple and near-successor of Aristotle, wrote a treatise in which he sought to investigate the perception and creation of rhythm and "rhythmic things" in musical practice. Unlike the Pythagoreans, who were mainly concerned with the "ideal" or "perfect" mathematical relationships of notes, Aristoxenus was interested in how we perceive and feel what actually happens when we experience rhythms, and how rhythms can be engendered. The book 'Ρυθμικων Στοιχειων (Rhythmikon Stoicheion, "Of the Elements of Rhythm" or, in the Latinised English translation: Elementa Rhythmica), of which significant fragments remain, deals with things capable of being rhythmised (the "rhythmomena") and more specifically with "musical" things: sounds, words and body movements - according to the traditional Greek conception of "mousiké techné" which did not favour sounds over other types of "sign".

Musical Rhythm (musica humana and musica mundana)

What we commonly call "music" usually has the meaning of an "art of sounds", but this emphasis (or even more so: this exclusivity) of sound as an essential element of the (cultural) phenomenon called "music" is not observed in the original Greek concept of "mousiké" or in most non-Western traditions. In many cultural contexts, for example (including Greek culture around 2000 years ago) dance, poetry and music are not conceptually separated. The mousiké tekhné (skills inspired by the Muses) of Greek culture included, in addition to musical (sound) forms stricto sensu, also poetic and dramatic genres and dance.

Music was therefore conceived as a manifestation of a transcendence conveyed through activities that took place over time. In a treatise from the 5th century CE (De Institutione Musica), the philosopher Boethius lists three types of music: musica instrumentalis, music made by the voice and sound instruments; musica humana, resulting from physiological rhythms and the articulation of the "humours" of the human body; and musica mundana, from the movements of celestial bodies, which generates the whole notion of temporality to which we are subjected: annual cycles (translation), monthly cycles (lunations), circadian cycles (rotation), seasons, etc.

Natural Rhythms (chronobiology, season cicles, cosmophony)

The notion of musica mundana, "worldly music" (cosmic music, resulting from the movements of celestial bodies and the planet Earth itself) and that of "human music", musica humana (the biological rhythms of the human body and psyche) are ancient conceptions of phenomena that are now being discussed again from a "scientific" point of view, after being relegated to the status of "superstitions" by the hegemonically positivist academic common sense of the last two centuries. Today, areas of knowledge such as chronobiology (studies of biological rhythms and temporalities) investigate the relationship between natural rhythms and everyday life, not only from an "ecological" perspective of preserving a "eurythmy" between the mundane and human scales, but also to help identify the polyrhythms between nature and culture (represented mainly by social rhythms) but also the shocks and arrhythmias that characterise social/environmental degradation, pathologies, crises and other collective problems that are accentuated in the current period of global capitalism's development.   

Social Rhythms (calendars, schedules, work/rest/party)


The relationship between natural and cultural rhythms calls into question the very dichotomy between nature and culture, which is much discussed (and questioned) in the field of human sciences. Calendars are perhaps the most notorious example of the complexity of these relationships. Throughout the ages, different social groups around the planet have created ways of organising the passage of days according to the observed references in astronomical cycles (rotation for days, translation for years, lunation for months), generating symbolic forms and numerical structures based on the counting of these cycles. Alongside this, social events, celebrations, harvests, market days and other specific situations in collective life determine another layer of calendars, overlapping but often distinct from the "natural" layer.

The study of social rhythms then reveals choices and impositions, habits and conditioning of human collective and individual actions in the time articulation of activities. Work and rest hours, periods of productive activity and celebration, conventional or emerging suspensions of daily life: these and other aspects are observed in the rhythmic analysis of communities and societies. In addition to rhythmanalysis, other areas of study, such as the geography of time, have sought to investigate these situations.  

bottom of page