I’m a music teacher. That means I spend a lot of my time sitting side-by-side with a student, both of us staring – with equal parts disgust and contempt – at a sheet of paper with a load of black dots on it.
I – for the most part – understand the dots, and so it’s only fair that I show the student how to decipher these dots, and to free the music within.
Now, when confronted with this page of what can sometimes look like nothing more than hieroglyphs, you don’t always know where to start. So you ask questions? “What’s the first note?” “Are they any sharps or flats?” “What does dolce e cantabile mean?”
These are all questions we’ll have to answer at some point, but there’s one question that – if we can answer – will unlock more doors than any other.
“What is the beat?”
The beat of a piece of music – as opposed to the rhythm – is the constant, unchanging, invisible temporal thread that runs through the music.
If you’re playing “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees, then it’s an obvious, disco-inflected, foot-stomping 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.
If you’re playing the Blue Danube Waltz, it’s an elegant 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
If you’re playing Zappa, or Stravinsky, then it might be something madder, like 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, 1-2-3…
“So what is the rhythm?”
The rhythm is everything you play – or don’t play – on top of that beat.
It’s “aah, aah, aah, aah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…” It’s “da-da-da-da-da… da-da… da-da…” It’s “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow…”
The most crucial thing to understand about rhythm is that without a beat, it is nothing. It’s just a series of notes. Rhythm needs a beat underneath it to give it context and meaning.
Perhaps it would be easier to explain by example.
The beat is a wooden table. The rhythm is the table cloth, the napkins, the cutlery, and the fine china you put on top. No wooden table? Just a load of crap on the floor.
The beat is the motorway. The rhythm is all the different vehicles driving on it. No motorway? Just a load of cars crashing into each other at 70mph.
The beat is the sun. The rhythm is the planets orbiting it. No sun? Nothing to orbit. Planets veering off into the far reaches of the galaxy.
Simply put, the beat comes first, and the rhythm is what you decide to put over it.
And this, my friend, is exactly how I think about time.
The beat of life
Time has a beat far more constant than any piece of music ever composed.
Time – like the tide – waits for no man. It marches on, never changing its speed, never stopping to rest or refuel.
And time is fair. Every day, for every man, woman, child, and beast, there exists the same 24 hours. Nobody gets more hours in the day just because Daddy was rich, or Mommy paid off the admissions board. If there is any equality in this life, then it is surely through time.
So if time is the beat of life, then what is the rhythm?
The rhythm of life is your actions
Rhythm is what you do or don’t do, against the backdrop of time.
There’s a reason – when you exclude privilege and silver-spoon-ism – why some people live richer lives than others, getting more things done that matter to them, feeling a sense of purpose. It’s simple – they master time.
They don’t control time, because you can’t, any more than you control the wind, or the sea. Time just is – it’s non-negotiable. But what you do against the backdrop of time, with your thoughts, words, and deeds, is extremely negotiable.
You have more than enough time in the day to do what you need to do. It is impossible not to have enough time, because time is the thing that you must orient yourself around – it doesn’t work the other way round. What you must do to master time is simply become more intentional about how and why you’re spending time the way you’re spending it.