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Music and Sports to Find Your Polyrhythms

music and sports

I grew up an athlete, my musical fantasies limited to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables blaring from our family’s Volvo wagon speakers. Windows down, the five of us roaring Do You Hear the People Sing at the top of our lungs, stuck in summer traffic on I-95 North. The cacophony was less polyrhythmic and more joy to those only in the car.

“In Music, everything must be constantly and permanently interconnected. Music is not about pointing out different elements. Music, the work of music, is about integrating those elements. If you are able to say tempo this, rhythm this, expression this….you are not making music. You are only, maybe, producing….sound. The difference between just sound and music is that when you make music, everything has to be integrated. You must always think, music is about integration. The child that learns from early on to really make music, learns about integration, learns about how all the different elements are connected. Tempo is not an independent element, expression is not an independent element, that everything is constantly and permanently connected. I don’t know of a better lesson in life than that.”

Daniel Barenboim

Music has the ability to offer a mirror by which to look at politics, religion, society, and sport. Musicality is the very nature of life, and so it only natural to bring it into the sphere of athletics as well. 

A kinetic chain is a combination of skills

For example, swimming can be independently viewed as a combination of stroke, kick, and breath. However, were someone to simply combine these three aspects, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be a great swimmer. It is, then, a thing greater than the sum of its parts, like any athletic activity.

swimming breath

The actions, the skills, the systems of the body must be in constant conversation with each other, and the person must maintain a keen awareness of them. A synthesis rhythmic activity to keep an optimally efficient movement going. So that in athletic performance it becomes second nature. 

One of the dangers for athletes that I see if they do not keep this integration in mind is that rather than finding a rhythm, we instead get stuck in a rut- meaning that instead of a smooth groove which serves us, we find ourselves in a monotonous action which is not aligned or optimal, and because we repeat it so much, we get stuck in this inefficient rut, unable to access other movements.

If you read any of Dan McDougall’s books (Born to run, Natural Born Heroes), the key to physical prowess lies in play, in the mixing up and unstructured movement of the body where it constantly has to learn and adapt. This is where music can come back in to help us get out of our rut.

Get familiar with the concept of beats and Polyrhythms

If you are at a concert, and everyone starts clapping in time, you are (hopefully) clapping on the beat. It’s a repetitive, predictable, mapping of time; the backbone of the music that we tap our foot along to. This beat will be our example of a rut. Repetitive and predictable mapping of time.

Now, in the more complex arena of classical music, there is such a thing as polyrhythms. Polyrhythms are- you guessed it- the usage of multiple rhythms on top of each other at the same time.

So if the backbone rhythm was four beats, the measurement of time was four items of equal length. Layer on 3, and now 3 of equal length must fit into the space of 4. 

Now clap 4 four times. Then clap 3 times. And imagine what it would be like to layer those things on top of each other, to have them happen at the exact same time. For visual/audio people, it looks and sounds like this:

The outside circle is 4, and the inside circle is 3. They are happening at the same time within the same span of time. The brilliance of polyrhythms is that they displace the accent, they displace the stress, it violates our expectations of where the weight is going to land, where the let down is going to happen, and it disrupts a monotonous experience of time.

Humans have a tendency to expect things, to want a certain sense of let-down, departure, ending, beginning. It’s easier and requires less thought. When we count to four repetitively, like in a march, we count ONE two three four ONE two three four. This is a pattern we can come to rely on and expect… important things in life.

But the last time you listened to a song that didn’t change, you probably shut it off after 2 seconds. It is not interesting. The success of music comes almost entirely in its ability to fulfill or violate our expectations. We want both fulfillment and violation- of only one occurs, we usually, as a culture, do not like the piece.  

Back to Sports – How do we incorporate Polyrythms?

Whatever sport, there are always multiple systems of the body at play, or multiple rhythms to attend to in the kinetic chain. If it’s swimming, you have the arms, legs, breath. Running, the stride and the breath. Tennis, the volley and the breath. Basketball and soccer, the dribble, the running, the back and forth, the breath.

basketball dribble

Hint: breath is a universal rhythm. The success in all of these sports is the ability to allow all the rhythms of the game/sport to exist simultaneously, and not to submit to only one. If we submit to just one rhythm, we are dead in the water and unable to operate efficiently or adapt when an off-beat happens. 

An Exercise in Breathing

A fun specific exercise to try an incorporate polyrhythms into training. Pick an even number- let’s say four. That is the rhythm of your breath. Breath in for four counts, out for four counts, steadily, not too fast or slow, just naturally. Repeat this until it is comfortable and natural.

If you need to do 2 or 6 counts, by all means, adapt. Do not hold your breath for any part, it will send your body into fight/flight mode. Keeping this breath rhythm going, start whatever activity you do- maybe a jog or swimming. Try to fit 5 strides or five kicks into the span of your four-count breath.

Difficult at first. Sure. But quickly, you find the odd sense of suspension and continuity that polyrhythm provides in athletic endeavors. Taking it into the realm of athletics provides tools to find where rhythm and sport intersect. Where the systems of the body optimally align and give greater physical adaptability and mental acuity.

Or if low hanging fruit is readily available, it is simply more interesting to get through that multiple hour training session. The workout becomes more like a game, playing on the way to efficiency. 

Sara Sherman
Sarah graduated with a degree in Music from the University of Virginia. At UVA she participated heavily in choir and mentoring youth in the arts. In her other time now, Sarah is a swim coach, preparing for a masters in vocal performance.