Rhythmic or Dance Awareness – 6th in Series 7 Musical Intelligences

rhythm and dance in music

Dance, Henri Matisse 1910

Rhythmic Intelligence – Part 6 of the Series on 7 Musical Intelligences.

“The dance is the mother of the arts. Music and poetry exist in time, painting and architecture in space. But the dance lives at once in time and space” - World History of Dance by Curt Sachs.

Your body’s memory of rhythm is vital to musical intelligence. Imagine rhythm as the track upon which the music train moves.

Not only is the rhythmic feel of the music important, it’s actually fun to indulge in the pure expression of the rhythm of the music being performed.

The rich influence of dance-

Most secular and even much sacred classical music is based on various dance rhythms.

Think of J. S. Bach’s violin and cello Suites and Partitas for example. Medieval dances inform all the movements including: Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabanda, Giga and Ciaccona.

Although they are not imminently “danceable”, their roots reach deep into the human urge to physically move to music.

Beyond music based literally on dance rhythms, rhythmic complexity is responsible for much of the impact of musically sophisticated symphonies such as those of Johannes Brahms.

Brahms is particularly fond of the “hemiola” - a rhythmic game which combines two normally opposing rhythmic concepts. A hemiola contains both a 2 and 3 rhythm simultaneously, giving the unique feeling of a rocking boat or moving floor.

Music education often misses the mark-

Rhythmic feel and dancelike playfulness are often missing from musical education, replaced by robotic "beats" with no connection to the instinctual physicality of rhythm.

As a teenager, I was encouraged by my parents to take formal dance classes to learn to waltz, tango and square dance. The experience helped me coordinate body and rhythm, giving first hand experience of the importance of rhythmic feeling in music.

Unfortunately, many musicians do not have the luxury of such a background and training. In pragmatic terms, a high level performer will be able to feel all levels of rhythmic detail but an average or amateur player may not.

As a result, the music produced by the non-rhythmic player is stiff, albeit accurate. An ability to play perfectly with a metronome does not always translate into freedom within the rhythm.

What do I mean by “freedom within the rhythm”?

Nearly any dance rhythm will have some “rubato” or freedom within the metronomic structure.

Take the waltz for example: Johann Strauss had a huge output - the Blue Danube being one of the most famous and with which the majority of you are familiar.

If you have ever played a Strauss waltz or listened to one, you may notice that the second beat of each measure is often played a bit early. This non-metronomic rubato serves to encourage lightness in the dancer’s steps, pushing them to the second beat, where they lift before moving to the next downbeat.

Any phrase of music will have a direction and goal to which it moves, then recedes, followed by another and another. A musically informed performer will know the points to which the music is drawn and will literally “lean” toward that point.

A musical example-

Illustrating this concept with a specific example, let’s return once again to the Rondo movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K 622.

Rhythmic Feel in Mozart Rondo

Mozart uses the 6/8 rhythm of the rondo, which is really just two 3/8 waltz bars in one, giving a natural direction through two bars,- six beats - rather than the single waltz bar of three beats.

The full first bar including the two upbeat sixteenths before that is really a “pickup” into the second bar with the held “F”. Subsequently, the third full bar leads similarly into the fourth bar, and so on.

What we really have here in terms of rhythmic structure is a feeling of 4! The first two beats - meaning the first full bar - are up/up and the second bar is down/up, creating a phrase of up/up/down/up up/up/down/up and so on through the full eight bar phrase.

The performer needs to know, feel these directions and express them through their interpretation to bring the music to rhythmic life.

One need not intellectualize the music so much to understand the “feel” and direction of its rhythm.

That same sense can be discovered through dancing to or conducting to a recording; alternatively conducting as you sing any specific phrase or piece. Pay close attention to your gestures because your body may feel the music better than your conscious awareness!


Conduct or dance to a phrase of music before playing it. What is the rhythmical feel of the music? What are its dance-like qualities?

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.

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2 comments for “Rhythmic or Dance Awareness – 6th in Series 7 Musical Intelligences

  1. November 11, 2010 at

    It’s interesting, I tend to think more in terms of dynamics for simple balanced phases. Imagining it as a dance brings in the rhythmical context and therefore another dimension to the phrase.

    I would have guessed it was up/up/down/down, which kind of ties in with dynamics. I kinda understand the down/up in the context of a dance, but not really…

    • November 14, 2010 at

      Ambrose. Rather than thinking in terms of literally dancing, try conducting. If I conduct the first two bars, my beat for the first bar is a small one, two. Then the downbeat of the second bar, I tend to conduct a much deeper DOWN motion, then up.

      So you could say it’s down-up-DOWN-up.

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