Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Anne Danielsen (ed.)
Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1-4094-0340-1 (hardcover), 978-1-4094-0931-1 (ebook)
RRP: US$93.47 (hardcover), US$72.90 (ebook)

Stefanie Alisch

University of Bayreuth (Germany)

The field of (ethno)musicological groove research spans about two decades if we see Charles Keil's article "Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music" (1987) as a beginning. Two central tropes in the debate around groove are 1. the relevance of microrhythmic variances; and 2. their production through interaction between musicians. This being so, groove discourse has been marked by overt and covert technophobia and a cultural pessimism that favors hand-played rhythms over electronically produced ones, decrying the latter as soulless, stale and unable to bring about community making processes (see Keil 1995). Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction offers a timely update of this discussion through close readings of the micro-rhythmic makeup of tracks from r&b, trip hop, US and UK garage, varieties of house, techno, pop and abstract electronica.

Some might remember Anne Danielsen's in-depth study Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament (2006), itself a staple of the groove discourse. Between 2004 and 2009, "Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (RADR)" ran as a group research project under Danielsen's guidance at the University of Oslo, where she is a professor of musicology. The volume presents results of the project that was funded by the Norwegian Research Council ( Contributors range from Danielsen's then PhD students to established figures of rhythm research like Eric F. Clarke and Tellef Kvifte. The project pivots on the question: "what happened to the sound and rhythm of African-American-derived, groove-directed popular music styles when these grooves began to be produced and played by machines?" (1).

Danielsen's introduction summarizes key concepts of groove research such as basic pulsation; the synching of different rhythms on a material level or a perception level called "entrainment"; the idea that an abstract model of a rhythm exists and that each played actualization diverges from the abstract model; and the notion that inter-onset-intervals are the fundamental criteria for perceiving the structure of a rhythm. Danielsen advocates a focus shift in three aspects: a) the move away from discussing rhythm purely in terms of inter-onset-intervals on a time line and towards an inclusion of timbre and sound as constituting elements of a groove; b) leaving behind the idea that bodily-performative practices serve merely as illustrative expressions in favor of treating body movement as a vital element of groove; c) abandoning the idea of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) as dehumanizing and instead exploring how they enable the development of new musical gestures.

The volume is divided into three parts: I) Microrhythm and Rhythmic Structure; II) Groove and Embodiment; and III) Mediation and Music Production. Choosing depth over comprehensiveness I introduce here one contribution from each section.

In Part I) Danielsen analyzes the pulse of D'Angelo's neo-soul hit "Left and Right" according to three different models of microrhythmic deviation: the metronome model, which focuses purely on impacts on a timeline; the local time shift model which also works with inter-onset-intervals, but includes relations of time-spans; and her own innovative beat bin model, which recognizes the "shape of the beats at a categorical level that is the dynamic feature of the groove" (33). A beat bin has a certain extension in time, but instead of just marking a beat's beginning and end point, this model considers the sound qualities (transients, bass rumblings) on the sound's material level and rhythmic tolerance on the listener's perceptional level. The beat bin has a shape similar to the letter U, which is placed on a rhythm's timeline with steeper or flatter lines indicating the beat's extension in sound beyond note-onset-points. Beat bins can be placed in equidistant fashion and still contain within themselves varying sound events of shifting position. Danielsen's contribution provides not only a meticulous analysis of the D'Angelo track, but also a concise overview of pulse models while challenging classics of groove and rhythm theory. The bin metaphor evokes a sense of three-dimensionality (not just a one-dimensional onset-point on a two-dimensional time-line), thus including sound perception and body movement of the listener.

In Part II) Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen's chapter "Moved by the Groove: Bass Drum Sounds and Body Movements in Electronic Dance Music" also explores the impact of sound variations within an individual rhythmical element. Starting with the popular DJ trick of depriving the audience of the bass drum sound for a couple of bars only to provoke euphoric reactions when the bass drum finally returns, the chapter demystifies the ubiquitous association between rhythm and body movement by taking a close look at a crucial rhythmic element of dance music, the bass drum. In an earlier study, the author investigated body movements on the up-and-down axis with relation to rhythmic structure in EDM. He found that downward motion of head, foot and upper body tend to occur on the downbeat, usually the place of the bass drum. Upward movement is associated with the upbeat, usually the place of the hi-hat. Within an individual bass drum sound in EDM, there is very often a descending in pitch, and it becomes unclear what should be regarded as the beat. Is it the bass drum's onset-point in time or the moment when the lowest pitch is reached? Touching on music psychology and neuro-scientific models such as affordance, entrainment and mirror neurons, the chapter links descending pitch in a bass drum sound and downward body movement on the downbeat through the concept of primary metaphor. The discussion of frequency ranges, transients and pitch shifts within certain bass drum sounds shows an increasing trend to deploy bass drums with descending pitch shifts over the last three decades. The aesthetic result is a push and pull effect between a downbeat that feels late and an upbeat that feels early. Zeiner-Henriksen's exploration of the "inner dynamics" (139) of bass drums in quantized music in relation to bodily movement concludes that "the downbeats of a dance track are crucial in providing not only pulse but a specific sensation of pulse, which affects the way all other rhythmic patterns and sounds are experienced" (139).

Considerations of sampling as discussed in terms of copyright (infringement), as supposedly subversive practice, and as mainly connected to hip hop and not musicologically as an aesthetic practice across genres serve as the starting point for Paul Harkins' "Microsampling: From Akufen's Microhouse to Todd Edwards and the sound of UK Garage" in Part III). Harkins moves away from the notion of sampling as "sonic quotation and the reconfiguration of existing sound recordings" (179) and towards discussing "some of the ways in which the digital sampler, as a creative tool, has shaped the music of producers" (178). Harkins reminds us of the four uses of the term "sampling" as defined by Kvifte: 1. the conversion of sound from analogue to digital; 2. relating to the use of hardware or software samplers; 3. "integrating existing recordings into a new recording as a recognizable sonic quotation" (180); and 4. the "use of tape splicing or digital editing to enhance studio recordings" (180). Canadian producer Akufen records "random fragments of obscure songs and mistuned white noise" (184) from the radio and arranges them into "abstract sound paintings" (186) with straight drum patterns. Todd Edwards, on the other hand, developed a distinct house style that is marked by 1. a trademark swing owing to the Ensoniq EPS sampler's "16 triplet-quantizing feature" (191); and 2. "a choir of sampled voices" (188) comprising minute pieces of r&b and disco vocals singing "meaningless melodies" (188).

Several themes run through the volume. Affordance serves as a theoretical framework that links groove perception and production while dynamically linking them with the specific context of the listener. Furthermore, Danielsen, Bjerke and Zeiner-Henriksen include "timbre, pitch, dynamics and texture" (15) in the groove discussion, thus expanding established notions of the attack-sustain-decay-release model of sound events and the note-onset positions as defining elements of a groove. While in some cases the use of visual representations is clear and strongly tied in with the verbal analysis (Danielsen), in other cases it is of a rather illustrative nature. Succinct metaphors capture the aesthetics of certain grooves. Images like the "seasick time-feel" of D'Angelo's tracks (21), the "ill, tight sound" of Timbaland (179), and the "stuttering effect" that "recalls a skipping CD" (171) make the musicological analyses appeal to the senses of the reader.

Overall, Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction is a precise, lucid and superbly edited compendium and a rich source of literature on rhythm and groove that lends itself as advanced teaching material. I wish there was a CD with this book, because the selection of musical material is brilliant, and listening to the analyzed tracks while reading is a must.


Danielsen, Anne. 2006. Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Keil, Charles. 1987. "Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music". Cultural Anthropology 2(3): 275–83.

–––– 1995. "The Theory of Participatory Discrepancies. A Progress Report". Ethnomusicology 39: 1-20.