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Musique et rythme

Geneviève Mathon et Éric Dufour
janvier 2012


La première réponse à l’abîme est le vertige (...). Le rythme est la seconde réponse...1

The first response to the void is vertigo (...). The second is rhythm...

1Let us begin with some definitions of rhythm. Plato wrote that “rhythm is the order of movement” (Lois, 665a). In Histoire de la langue musicale (A History of Musical Language), Maurice Emmanuel observed that “rhythm in music is the organization of time and duration”2. More recently, in his entry on “Rhythm” in the Encyclopédie pour le XXI siècle (Encyclopedia for the 21st century), Kofi Agawu explains that the term rhythm “comes from the Greek rhytmos and refers to temporal structure in the broad sense of the term”. The Neo-Kantian Paul Natorp, observing that the Greek word means “to flow” (fliessen), remarks that rhythm is not pure chaos so much as the organization (Gestaltung) of chaos, i.e. a Rhythmisierung : the ordering of chaos from chaos itself, and therefore the intrinsic order of chaos. It therefore reforms itself at every moment3.

2All of these definitions – and others, including those suggested by Emile Benveniste, Henri Maldiney, Henri Meschonnic, etc. – assimilate rhythm with time4.

3Yet rhythm remains an enigma which many texts have sought to elucidate: what is rhythm? What is the relation between rhythm and time? What is the relation between rhythm and othermusical parameters? Does the musician’s approach to rhythm differ from the philosopher’s approach? Does the approach to rhythm vary according to the type of music, period, or aesthetic current in which one has an interest?

4The object of all of the articles collected in this volume is not to provide a synthesis of the full range of issues raised by the notion of rhythm. Rather, the volume aims to clarify the state of current research (in musicology, philosophy and academia more generally).

5In what follows we provide a list of the entire range of questions raised by the issue of rhythm.

6First of all there is the issue of the relations between the various musical parameters, which cannot be overlooked in any consideration of the notion of rhythm, inasmuch as any one of the specific dimensions of music, which only exists for and through other such dimensions, can indeed be isolated in a wholly abstract and artificial manner. Every article in this volume includes some consideration of this issue.

7Secondly, there is the relation between rhythm and time. In this case there is an important distinction to be made between different ways of apprehending the issue, in line with the directions taken by some of the authors included in the present volume. To some extent the question concerns the logic of rhythm, i.e. the structure or form of thought in which rhythm originates, the laws of its development and therefore the rules governing its various figures. This is precisely the issue addressed by François Nicolas from an unexpectedly Natorpian perspective: Nicolas leaves aside the issue of time, which he conceives as non-existent, in favour of a logical organization of time, which solely exists. The emergence of a non-existent time is, as in Natorp, explained from the perspective of a more fundamental dimension: “musical time does not exist ; musical time consists of a specific set of (musical) operations on (musical) existences that result in the (musical) work weaving its time”. The issue of musical time is not merely linked with the logical question, but is more broadly connected to the scientific question : such is the focus of the reminder provided by Martin Laliberté in this volume, who shows the connections that may be drawn between musical taste and the profound mutations of physics, after more than one hundred years of fundamental discoveries in relativistic, quantum, supersymmetrical, cord or brane physics. Philippe Lalitte’s article is in the same vein: Lalitte shows how Varèse’s rhythmic thought, while it conceives of rhythm in relation to space rather than time, establishes nonetheless a determination of the concept inspired by astronomy, geometry and simultaneism.

8Yet in another sense or from a different point of view, the issue of musical time is indissociable from an ontology of time and therefore of rhythm as an immediate given of the world, in its (Bergsonian) irreducibility to any quantification and more broadly to any scientific determination of rhythm (be it the logical, mathematical or physical model). This is precisely the substance of Barraqué’s thesis, in the wake ofhis master Messiaen and which Laurent Feneyrou usefully outlines in this volume.

9The article by Daniel Charles is in a similar vein, and addresses the irreducibility of musical time not merely to any form of scientific determination, but also more broadly to any kind of rationalization – insofar as time is not thought or does not pertain to thought, which however does not exclude the possibility (for which this texts provides evidence) that thought may extend to its very own limits, in order to conceive it.

10The question of the rationalization of musical time raises another issue: the relation between the writing of rhythm (precisely as the rationalization of rhythm) and the execution of what, as gesture and action in their concrete dimension, is irreducible to a wholly abstract rationalization [1]. This dimension is implicitly raised in the article by Daniel Charles included in this volume. But it is also the more explicit object of Olivier Cullin’s article, which demonstrates that scores played a minor role in the Middle Ages and that the oral dimension of rhythm tended to override the written dimension. Notation was fundamentally nothing more than the spatialization of a form of temporality (to speak once again in Bergsonian terms) which is irreducible to it and in which time withdraws and appears only as a trace, as something that needs to be rediscovered.

11There is a final dimension of rhythm that needs all the more to be emphasized inasmuch as it is frequently overlooked, no doubt because it is not strictly speaking an aesthetic dimension in the sense commonly attributed to the term : the politicial dimension of rhythm. Such is the focus of three of the articles included in the volume.

12The article by Elise Petit shows how rhythm conceived as the organization or framing of time can be used as a means of control, subservience and alienation. The idea is already present in Plato, and the use of music by the national-socialist regime in 1930s and 1940s Germany also illustrates this notion.

13While it begins by focusing on the strictly aesthetic question of the regularity of pulsation in music, the article by Pierre Sauvanet shows that this issue is inseparable from the political question of communication and more broadly of social practices. Although it appears very prominently in all forms of popular music, the regularity of pulsation has tended to be absent from contemporary academic music: is this not because it constitutes the basis of a social pact and therefore of a community ?

14Finally, the article by Philippe Michel on the rhythmic structure of jazz and its evolution, while it claims not to adopt a political approach (which it argues remains to be done), and for all that its analysis remains internal and strictly musical and therefore aesthetic (and not external : the analysis of the social, cultural and political conditions of jazz), is nonetheless “political” in a very precise sense of the term : in the sense that it identifies, within the rhythmic structure of jazz, an element of resistance in black music to a servile assimilation of the musical norms of colonial music (i.e. in truth to European metrics) : hence the hybrid rhythmic figures described by the author.

15Between the different musical practices and forms of creation with which those addressed in this volume could be associated, some thought, some written, some inscribed in (pre)-defined temporal processes, others taken “on the spot”, that Kevin Dahan draws connections which find their expression in the rhythmic articulation of different levels of temporal organization.

16We wish to dedicate this book to the memory of Daniel Charles (1935-2008), who was unable to revisit, as he would have wished, his “Rhythm as the experience of time”, which opens this volume.

...l’un des vents vient voir le chaos et lui dit :
“L’état de l’univers est déplorable, que puis-je faire pour l’améliorer ?”
Le chaos continue, tel un oiseau, à voltiger et à sautiller,
Sans prêter attention à la question ; il se tait.
Aussi le vent pose-t-il la question une seconde fois ;
Celle-ci demeure encore sans réponse.
Comme dans d’autres contes du même genre, il faut la reformuler
Une troisième fois. Le chaos, alors, cesse de sautiller, et prononce :
“Vous n’aboutirez qu’à faire empirer les choses”.5
Geneviève Mathon and Eric Dufour (Paris 25 October 2009)



1 Henri Maldiney, Regard, parole, espace, Editions l’Age d’Homme, Paris, 1973 and 1994, p. 150 ; 151.

2 See O. Messiaen, who begins his study of time with a reminder of the etymology of the word ‘rhythm’. See Traité de rhythme, de couleurs et d’ornithologie (1949-1992), Paris, Leduc, tome 1, 1994, p. 39.

3 P. Natorp, “Logique générale”, French translation by E. Dufour, Néokantismes et théorie de la connaissance, Paris, Vrin, 2000 ; Philosophische Systematik, F. Meiner, p. 377.

4 See our article “Le rythme musical”, in Musique et temps, Les Editions Cité de la Musique, Paris, 2008, p. 69-89.

5 John Cage, Je n’ai jamais écouté aucun son sans l’aimer : le seul problème avec les sons, c’est la musique, La main courante, 1994, p. 14.


Geneviève Mathon et Éric Dufour, «Musique et rythme», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, Musique et rythme, mis à  jour le : 26/01/2012, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=476.


Geneviève MathonÉric Dufour