The Minimalistic Rhythm Strategy

Are you among those that are sometimes emotionally violated by the excessive use of rhythms in music coming out of neighbours’ homes, and from cars that pull up next to yours at traffic lights? ‘Pump Up The Bass’ is a common mantra these days, meaning turn up the volume folks, because the song has lots of bass (low frequency that reverberates into your system). Why has melody—the essential tune and its decoration—taken a back seat, with the beat taking control of things? Is it because we are a heavily overcommunicated society now, and so we need to drum louder and harder to receive attention? Beating the drum for attention is, of course, an ancient and valid idea, the idiom finding its use in daily parlance too.

But we are experiencing an overdose, aren’t we? When we keep beating the drum much of the time, exactly the reverse happens. The beat-centric song arrives and departs, the message getting lost, because its creator had no clue how to deliver it well.

Clearly, the judicious use of rhythms is often a key to a great tune. Sometimes, in fact, it is desirable to shut off all beats, especially in a slow song when we need to hear words that have loads of meaning. Also when we need to latch on to the expression in the singer’s voice. When there is a painful Heer to be rendered, or when it’s a kind of mushaira scene, or when dejection has to be impregnated into tune. The masters of the golden era appreciated this point only too well. They understood not only where they had to put fifty violins and a hundred chorus singers, but they also had their finger on the pulse of the situation where the idea was to go minimalistic.

Western musicians use the words Senza Misura to describe songs that have no meter, and as such no rhythm instruments. Back home, we use the expression Theka Bund. This form of dramatizing the song to travel without an audible taal or time cycle can be executed for part of the song (that has happened in hundreds of our melodies), or for the entire duration of the tune. But first let’s get a focus on what we mean by rhythm instruments here.

There are two groups of percussion instruments, whose essential job is to furnish the rhythm. One kind has a membrane (tabla, dholak, duff, conga, etc) and then we have the non-membrane variety (triangle, woodblock, manjira, khadtaal, chimta, etc). Of course, many essentially melodic instruments can offer rhythms too, for instance the rhythm guitar, where the player’s fretting hand provides the harmony with the other hand strumming the rhythm. A solo singing guitarist thus brings the two elements together in his work! The strings of a piano and santoor can be hammered to create rhythm, and the sitar, sarod, bulbul tarang, mandolin and many more can bring alive the idea of a repeated rhythm pattern. Why these, even pumped instruments like the harmonium and accordion can give some semblance of a beat and timing cycle. But these are primarily not percussion instruments, so to simplify things we keep them out of here for rhythms.

Surely you recall many of the songs listed below. These songs had a complete—or near-complete, absence of percussion. A couple of these songs have perhaps just a hint of rhythm, like of the percussion instrument vibraphone, the bars of which can be struck periodically in a low-profile way. Perhaps somewhere too the plucking of the strings of the huge Double Bass may be heard, but again, minimalistically. Song titles are followed by singers’ names, composers and their films: 

  • Dukh ke ab din beetat naahi (KL Saigal/RC Boral/Devdas, 1935)
  • Soja meri laadli (Shamshad/Ghulam Haider/Chal Chal Re Naujawan, 1944)
  • Tu dil ka Khuda hai (Rafi/Khayyam/Parda, 1949)
  • Sitamgar se leta hai tu inteqaam (Rafi/Khayyam/Parda, 1949)
  • Aye baad-e-saba aahista chal (Hemant/C. Ramchandra/Anarkali, 1953)
  • Bharam teri wafaon ka mita dete to kya hota (Talat/SD Burman/Arman, 1953)
  • Humne maana ke taghaaful na karoge lekin (Suraiya/Ghulam Mohd/Mirza Ghalib, 1954)
  • Chhota sa ghar hoga baadalon ki chhaon mein (The Hemant version/Salil Choudhury/Naukri, 1954)
  • Kis ko khabar thi, kisko yaqeen tha (Talat/SD Burman/Devdas, 1955)
  • Mitwa, laagi ye kaisi anbujh aag (Talat/SD Burman/Devdas, 1955)
  • Main lut gayi duniyawaalo (Lata/Salil Choudhury/Tangewali, 1955)
  • Jadon ishq de kam noon hath laiye (Rafi/Anil Biswas/Heer, 1956)
  • Husn kehte hain mujhe (Asha, Talat/Hafeez Khan/Mera Salaam, 1957)
  • Tang aa chuke hain kashmakash-e-zindagi se hum (Rafi/SD Burman/the mushaira in Pyaasa, 1957)
  • Pyaar ki duniya lutegi (Lata/Ravi/Mehndi, 1958)
  • Mere man ke diye (Lata/Salil Choudhury/Parakh, 1960)
  • Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon (Rafi/SN Tripathi/Lal Qila, 1960)
  • Lagta naheen hai dil mera (Rafi/SN Tripathi/Lal Qila, 1960)
  • Saaranga teri yaad mein (the Rafi version/Sardar Malik/Saranga, 1960)
  • Dil hum ko dhoondta hai, hum dil ko dhoondte hain (Shankar Dasgupta, Meena Kapoor/Anil Biswas/The Return of Mr. Superman, 1960)
  • Juhi ki kali meri laadli (Suman/Shankar-Jaikishan/the slow version in Dil Ek Mandir, 1963)
  • Na ghar tera na ghar mera (Hemant/Ramlal/Sehra, 1963)
  • Lo apna jahaan duniyawaalo (Asa Singh Mastana/Roshan/Dooj Ka Chand, 1964)
  • Aye jaan-e-nazar chilman se agar (Rafi, Mubarak/Iqbal Quereshi/Qawwali Ki Raat, 1964)
  • Saawan ke maheene mein (Rafi/Madan Mohan/the slow version in Sharabi, 1964)
  • Zindagi khwaab hai, tha humen bhi pata (Mukesh/Anil Biswas/Chhoti Chhoti Baaten, 1965)
  • Muddat ki tamannaon ka sila (Mahendra Kapoor/Ravi/Kaajal, 1965)
  • Samjhi thi ke ye ghar mera hai (Asha/Ravi/Kaajal, 1965)
  • Maayoos na ho aye mere watan (Rafi/Rono Dev Mukherji/Tuhi Meri Zindagi, 1965)
  • Main gaoon tum so jao (Rafi/Shankar-Jaikishan/the slower version in Brahmachari, 1968)
  • Sadqe Heer tujh pe hum faqeer sadqe (Rafi/Shankar-Jaikishan/Mera Naam Joker, 1970)
  • Mujhe pyaar tum se naheen hai (Runa Laila/Jaidev/Gharonda, 1977)
  • Tere bas mein (Heer by Mehdi Hasan/Mehdi Hasan/Non film)
  • Nazaaron mein ho tum (Manna Dey/V. Balsara/Non film)
  • Dono jahaan teri muhabbat mein haar ke (Noor Jahan/Noor Jahan/Non film)

 When you pause to think of these songs, you feel they grab your attention. Maybe the new composers need to go back to the drawing board to realize that being a worthy musician means sometimes to shut off the rhythms, at other times the words, and at other moments yet, the melody. What is right for the situation. It isn’t about flaunting one’s knowledge of technology, nor it is about pumping up the volume most of the time. Perhaps our new composers need to read a path-breaking book by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It’s called Positioning, and it very smartly tells us how, in these days of distractions and saturation drum-beating, to open the minds of target audiences and plant our message there.

Of course, the masters of yore knew. Even if some of them never laid their hands on smart marketing-strategy books. In fact, many of them were functionally illiterate, but look at what they created!


(Photo: Muddat ki tammanaon ka sila)

Originally published: 15th June 2014)

2 thoughts on “The Minimalistic Rhythm Strategy

  1. Very helpful essay for me personally as these two terms Senza Misura and a Capella have always been confusing. The way instruments, other than percussion instruments, can be used to measure beat in a song – that was fascinating too! Thank you.

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