Rhythm Section: Spending A Week Trying To Catch The Beat

old man playing congas i i
Roberto A Sanchez/Getty Images
old man playing congas
Roberto A Sanchez/Getty Images

This week on All Things Considered and Morning Edition, we're listening closely to the beats and the pulses that are all around us, and inside us, every day, trying to hear rhythms in a new way. Of course we're are aware that music and poetry (and the drip of our neighbor's air conditioner and the wheezing of the bus) affect us. We've spoken with people who study and make different rhythms about how these patterns function in music, in our heads and on our bodies.

We'll kick off the week with a story about military cadences — which you'll notice in almost every single Hollywood depiction of basic training, to the point where you can't hear "Sound off, one-two, sound off, one-two" without thinking of a uniform. That rhythm has a very specific, and very American, origin story. It also serves a dual purpose: to at once control people's movement and give the people singing it room to extemporize and subvert.

From there, we'll count off other ways rhythms rule our lives. Come back to this page all week to find more stories that ask what happens when rhythm is elusive, and why it sometimes feels so natural. From the beat of our hearts and the oscillations of our brains to the rise and fall of a presidential address or a poem, here is our look into the hidden world of rhythms.

The Stories

  • Sound Off: Where The Military's Rhythm Came From

    U.S. Army soldiers take part in a morning run at Camp New York, Kuwait in 2002.
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images

    "For me, hearing that first cadence the very first time was awesome. Because you always wanted to hear what the next verse was. So you always wanted to keep up so that you could hear the person calling the cadence so you knew what to say back to them." — Bobby Gerhardt on learning to fall in step after joining the Army on All Things Considered (Monday, June 16)

  • The Human Heart And Its Rhythmic Magnificence

    YouTube

    "The heart is a bad drummer. It speeds up. It slows down. So you can't put a music track to it. You have to play live to it." -- Sound artist Christopher Janney on composing based on the human heartbeat on Morning Edition (Tuesday, June 17)

  • Your Brain's Got Rhythm, And Syncs When You Think

    "Dance for PD" classes use music to temporarily ease tremors and get Parkinson's patients moving.
    Maggie Starbard/NPR

    "It's sort of hard to imagine any way of doing continuous locomotion that wasn't built on a rhythmic underpinning." -- Neuroscientist Mark Churchland on the way the brain uses rhythm to deal with the complicated web of signals required to control movement on All Things Considered (Tuesday, June 17)

  • A Rhythm That's Waltzed Away With Hearts

    Debutantes in the opening waltz of the 2011 Vienna Opera Ball. The head of the Vienna Institute for Strauss Research calls the waltz "Austria's premier cultural export."
    Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

    "You must understand that in those days, in the 19th century, it was one of the first dances where dancers were allowed to come closer. Men could hold the lady and squeeze the lady, and bring her near to, well, where the man wants the lady to be, and it was just very erotic." -- Eduard Strauss, chairman of the Vienna Institute for Strauss Research (and great-grandson of waltz composer Eduard Strauss), explains why the waltz swept Vienna 200 years ago on Morning Edition (Wednesday, June 18)

  • Speechwriters Deliberately Use Rhythm To Help Make Their Point

    President Obama and his director of speechwriting, Jon Favreau, in 2009. i i
    The White House/Getty Images
    President Obama and his director of speechwriting, Jon Favreau, in 2009.
    The White House/Getty Images

    "When you're involved with a rhythm, you take on a beat other than your own. For a moment we stop being ourselves and we all become part of a powerful group. And I think we're all looking for that opportunity to step outside of a 'me' and become a 'we.'" — Composer and conductor Rob Capilow, explaining why speechwriters like Jon Favreau (seen here with President Obama in 2009) use specific rhythms in speeches on Morning Edition (Thursday, June 19)

  • Can't Follow The Beat? Just Add Butter

    YouTube

    "You know, for The National, we're a semi-popular band I would say, and ['Fake Empire' is] probably our most popular song. So a lot of people, without knowing it, have learned this rhythm — which is kind of a cool idea." -- Guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner of The National talks about the polyrhythm (known to musicians by the name "pass the goddamn butter") at the heart of the band's song, "Fake Empire," on All Things Considered (Thursday, June 19)

  • How Rhythm Carries A Poem, From Head To Heart

    YouTube

    "One of the things that distinguishes poetry from ordinary speech is that in a very few number of words, poetry captures some kind of deep feeling, and rhythm is the way to get there. Rhythm is the way the poetry carries itself." -- Edward Hirsch, author of A Poet's Glossary, on Morning Edition (Friday, June 20)

  • The Rhythm That's A Way Of Living

    YouTube

    "When you don't think about it, that's when you do it. You can become just frightened by just the intellectual idea of how is it possible. And they don't even ask the question. When you ask the questions to them, is like, 'What do you mean? I just dance and play.'" --Cuban percussionist Dafnis Prieto explains why playing polyrhythms like the guaguanco — which ignores the "one" beat — isn't as hard as it seems on All Things Considered (Friday, June 20)

  • Think Before You Clap: You Could Be Beat Deaf

    YouTube

    "I can't figure out what's rhythm, in fact. I just can't hear it, or just can't feel it." --26-year-old Mathieu Dion, the one person diagnosed by The International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research as having no rhythm on Morning Edition (Tuesday, June 24)

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