We Ain’t Got No Rhythm

In North America, that is:

Hannon and Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto began their study with knowledge that other studies had shown people in North America struggle to grasp irregular rhythms. Balkan music proves troubling, for example. So the researchers studied 50 college students, mostly from the United States and Canada, and 17 first- or second-generation Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrants. Songs with simple meters were made more complex, and complex songs were simplified.

The North Americans recognized when things got trickier, but couldn’t tell when things got simpler. The immigrants figured both out.

I have an old album by the Irish folk musician Andy Irvine, who spent a lot of time in the Balkans, and plays bouzouki, on which he plays a number of horas. I can’t imagine how in the world folks dance to them.

But I was particularly appalled a few years ago when in an elevator, I heard a version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” done in 4/4 time (it was originally written, as hinted at by the title, in 5/4–another Brubeck classic, on the same album, is Blue Rondo A La Turk, in 9/8). They had apparently dumbed it down for less sophisticated American ears. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing.