Whether we grew up taking musical lessons or not, we've all been trained to see music in a linear fashion. We read music left-to-right along the horizontal lines of musical staffs, and watch it progress from start to finish along a Spotify play bar. However, an amazing video produced by TED-Ed reveals music could be even better understood if seen in an entirely different way.
By arranging musical notation around circular face — like a clock — instead of along horizontal staffs, listeners can better visualize how rhythms function in time. And with a few simple rotations of this circular staff, we can clearly see some starting insights about the universality of certain rhythms in world music.
Western musical notation can be extremely daunting to the untrained eye. But by subdividing circles into subbeats and locating beats around them, we can make them more legible.
As the video explains, western rock music tends to stick to a pattern heavily accenting downbeat on the one with and an off-beat on the two count. This rhythmic pattern also drives country, jazz, reggae and cumbia music — a Latin American style from Columbia, which can feature an underlying triplet feel.
The beauty of this model is how well it represents the cultural differences — and similarities — across musical genres. By simply turning the wheel so that the downbeats and upbeats fall on different places in the rhythmic cycle, one can shift between entirely different styles of music. The Puerto Rican bomba can morph into Brazilian choro, for example.
The circular notation also helps place proper emphasis on the value of musical repetition. Repetition makes up the backbone of all music comprehension. It helps us see music as a unified whole rather than an arbitrary stream of present moments. "Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical," Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explaines in a fascinating piece on musical repetition for Aeon. "It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen." By arranging musical rhythms in a circular pattern one can see how loops help establish patterns.
This innovative circular notation is difficult to write music with, but it offers a fascinating conceptual exercise in showing how music is, indeed, the universal language.