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Rhythm is the single most important avenue to greatness in everything humans do
The best musicians, athletes, cooks, writers, and storytellers all have incredible rhythm
Before we begin, thanks for being here and reading what I hope is a totally entertaining way to look at creative work. But just as a quick call to action before you get immersed, Tom Webster this week wrote how great it would be to have writers workshops but for podcasters. Tom! We have one! There are people in it and they are getting such great value. Send anyone that wants private, expert feedback our way. Here’s the link:
A couple weeks ago I was at a Phish concert in Denver which I would totally keep a secret from the world except that it helps explain my thought process. My mind was wandering as it does when the band goes into an outer space jam. I was thinking about rhythm.
When the band snapped back together, the entire crowd of thousands started moving as one, connected to the band’s rhythm. Another less hippy musician, Paul Fisher, demonstrates this audience connection beautifully in a minute of buildup before a beat drop in the video below:
This skill with rhythm and audience connection set both Phish and Fisher apart in their respective genres.
Then the real question hit me: is rhythm the single most important thing that separates the good from the great in all human pursuits? What it if is?
We already have some science that informs us that rhythm is innate. This study demonstrates that people with no musical training create the same rhythmic structures as trained musicians. But what if rhythm is the thing that makes certain skiers, runners, chefs, writers, and podcasters elite? I think it is.
Rhythm is obviously the thing that sets apart great musicians. Playing music requires making muscle movements—fingers, feet, vocal chords, tongue—to a beat. Human ears can hear a half millisecond delay in sound, but a professional drummer typically only plays within 20 milliseconds of the perfect beat. That leaves a ton of room for variance, with the best of the best being noticeably better than the very very good. It’s worth listening (audio clip link) to Phish frontman Trey Anastasio describe drummer Russ Lawton.
I liked that tour a lot. The ‘99 tour. I remember getting into a couple of grooves with the trio that were like—those guys had an ability to get so locked in. The groove was locked, and then I'd be playing the guitar, and I could hear hear the dinging of the symbol—just like dead tight with the guitar, and [Russ would] just be, he wouldn't really vary what he was doing. It was much more like… oh man.
The best athletes, the best cooks
What about rhythm elsewhere? For whatever reason, growing up, my coaches never emphasized the importance of rhythm in sports, so I had to discover it. I first noticed it watching a video of myself skiing. I saw that the shape of my turns was fine, but my skiing looked awful because I was picking and choosing when to turn instead of turning on a beat. It’s so satisfying to see a professional skier with real rhythm.
Likewise, this year I discovered rhythm in running. Studies have shown that elite runners keep a cadence of about 180 steps per minute. I downloaded this playlist from Timber contributor Brent Rose, and aches and pains disappeared, time sped up, and I got faster just by keeping my steps on the beat. Elite runners hold their perfect 180 beat cadence for miles without music.
Ok so rhythm in running is important, what about swimming? Same thing. During the Olympics I used a beats-per-minute calculator to determine the stroke rate of swimmers at various distances. They swam at 80 or more strokes per minute on sprints and about 70 strokes per minute at longer distances. Their rhythm was faster and more perfect than mine. I made some adjustments to my own swimming and felt immediate gains.
I’m sure we could find examples of amazing rhythm in elite stars in more popular team sports like soccer, football, and basketball, but instead let’s turn away from sports and jump over to cooking.
Do the best cooks have good rhythm? You know it. Anthony Bourdain’s description of Le Bernardin’s fish butcher, Justo Thomas, as he removes tiny, difficult, pin bones from a piece of salmon, revels in his rhythm:
Ordinary mortals have to feel for each slim bone lurking just beneath the surface, careful not to gouge the delicate flesh. Justo moves his hand up the filet in a literal flurry of movement; with each bone that comes out, he taps the pliers on the cutting board to release it, then, never stopping, in one continuous motion, repeats repeats repeats. It sounds like a quick, double-time snare drum beat, a staccato tap tap tap tap tap tap tap, and then . . . done. A pause of a few seconds as he begins on another side of fish. I can barely see his hand move.
I have never seen anything like it in nearly three decades in the restaurant business.
The best writers
I had never read about rhythm in prose before deciding it was important, so I decided to google around. Turns out we’ve been talking about the importance of rhythm in prose since Aristotle who said, “Prose should contain rhythm, but not meter, else it will be verse.” The video below has a more modern take on rhythm in writing with useful examples. I got a kick out of watching the guy describe it.
Writing rhythm is super important, so I’ll offer up one more example worth reading if you’re trying to improve yours. This one is from the New York Book Editors site and in addition to giving useful advice on creating and varying rhythm in writing, it even offers some linguistic evidence that the different feel we get from using multisyllabic versus short words is rooted in racism and subjugation! Pretty wild stuff, check it out.
I was recently listening to two of Anthony Bourdain’s memoirs (Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw), and as a prose writer he has an infectious rhythm. You can hear the rhythm a little better if you speed the playback up to 1.4X.
I love how Bourdain’s sentences and reading performance come in volleys like a saxophonist belting out a jazz solo. Here’s a little audiogram I made from a relatively random sample played at 1.4X that shows how he modulates his rhythm between righteous anger and false repentance.
If you want to do this for your own writing, take my advice from a previous edition of the newsletter and read your own work aloud to yourself. If you don’t intuitively hear opportunities to improve the rhythm, you might need to work on your innate sense of rhythm by doing other things:
Listen to your favorite writers but only focus on their rhythms. Get a feel for them. Speeding up playback can help you hear it.
Listen to some rap and hip hop from the past 20 years—earlier hip hop doesn’t have enough variation in verse structure. The playlist I mentioned earlier is a great place to start.
Move your body to a rhythm. Dance, jog, play an instrument, chop vegetables to a beat.
The best storytellers
We’ve climbed the tree all the way to writing where the argument that rhythm separates the good from the great is a little thin, but let’s keep going. What about storytelling itself? How important is rhythm in storytelling? I mean is there even rhythm in storytelling?
Absolutely there is. If you think of rhythm as a regular interval that makes it possible to predict the next beat, then rhythm in storytelling makes sense. Does the next major event of the story happen when you expect? And is it emphasized or deemphasized in the way you expect? Rhythm is something we can all feel, and we can feel if it’s right or wrong. Does the rhythm of the story feel right?
And to use movies as examples (because unfortunately we maybe don’t have enough podcasts in common to use them as examples), there are those that are very predictable and and hit every beat exactly when and how we expect. Think of some Disney classics like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. There are also those that surprise us a little but still feel just right. I think of them as having syncopated beats or emphasizing the back beat. Movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Donnie Darko or recently, Pig. (Watch it it’s so good).
Of course I’m not the first person to see great storytelling as having rhythm. This article by marketer David Intrator discusses storytelling rhythm,and has a great little how-to section. I love the first question in the how-to: “Is there an overall groove? Is this a story that, broadly speaking, moves quickly or at a more leisurely pace?”
And here’s another piece from Psychology Today looking at the way movies are edited with evidence of different scene cut lengths at different places in the films. The faster the scene cuts, the more intense the action of the plot.
My suggestion for you as you write your podcast and create your story arc is to let the listener be able to predict the next beat most of the time. You don’t want a surprise at every turn, you want listeners to have the pleasure of feeling like they can anticipate your moves. Then if you do have a couple of surprises, they will be so much more shocking.
A good storyteller will even do this in everyday conversation. They’ll hit the notes people expect, get them nodding, get them laughing at the predictability of it all, then BAM surprise!
I wrote this whole damn article in my head as Phish was in the middle of some jam. I was even noodling over little details like this: Recently, listening to the podcast Whistleblower, there was a scene where the host wasn’t sure if a key source was going to make it to a meeting. The source FBI agent had been notoriously tight-lipped about the podcasts’ topic, an NBA referee scandal from 2007. If the FBI agent showed up, the podcaster would get a scoop. If not, the whole podcast could amount to nothing. A guy walked into the diner where they were supposed to meet. He was wearing a suit. He turned around. There was a pause in the audio. It was the FBI agent! That pause was just the right length. What should that length be? One second? Two? NO! It should be exactly the right length, and you can only know by listening and feeling the rhythm.
Phish was still playing the jam. I turned to my friend Erik. What song is this?
See you next week!