Rhythm is the key

Rhythm is the key

Martin Gayford

What is the secret of all great art? Our innate sense of timing, says Martin Gayford

What separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom?

Various solutions to that conundrum have been proposed, tool-making and language-using among them. None – with the arguable, but certainly debatable exception, of “a soul” – has proved quite unique enough: quite a few creatures use tools, chimps seem to learn language, and so on.

Here’s a slightly more unusual notion: the fundamentally human aptitude is rhythm. Or more precisely, the capacity to take up a rhythm or beat from someone or something else and hold it. Only human beings, it seems, imitate and enjoy rhythm in this way. In his fascinating book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks quotes the researcher Aniruddh Patel, who concluded: “There is not a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck, or move in synchrony with an auditory beat.”

There is some small dispute concerning the drumming elephants of Thailand – one can hold a beat, but the others do not seem to follow – and there is the question of birdsong, but by and large this seems to be true.

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