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Living in rhythm

Alan Braunholtz

Returning to Vail after the hothouse of Denver or the dry western plains is akin to returning to an oasis. Vail Pass and Dowd Junction symbolize safety, the welcoming gates of a walled city providing sanctuary from those uncivilized enemies of heat, dust and humidity.

Vail is a very pleasant place in the summer. That’s no revelation to anyone who lives here, but I say this to myself on a frequent basis. Enjoying dawdling along a favorite footpath and a chance encounter with a gentle-eyed mule deer or an indignant coyote yipping away. I don’t think I’ll ever get blase about wild animals or places. The network of life on earth, its variation and evolution are unsurpassed in terms of wonder and beauty.

Vail resembles an adult playpen. We have so many activities available. The Hot Summer Nights concert series provided my most recent “wow!” moment. Lying on cool grass watching dots of birds wheel about in an aerobatic feeding frenzy, surrounded by scenery and friends who can’t be taken for granted, is a rare thing. Add in that essential social mixer, a good beat and bodies starting to twitch to the rhythm, and you’ve got some thing special.



Music and man have a long history. We may have developed melodies, but rhythm helped create us as social animals. Man is art and art is Man are not idle statements. We all have rhythm or some inner metronome. Ask someone to tap and they’ll do so at a surprisingly consistent pace. Chances are we’ll tap once every 600 milliseconds. Individuals can vary in this rhythm, but we all tend to walk at the same rate we tap.

This rhythm may be preprogrammed or develop from the sounds we hear as babies with our mother’s heart setting the standard. Young babies are sensitive to tempo changes, perking up when they hear a new tempo and become good at focusing on speech rhythms they hear a lot. As adults the hardest part of mastering a new language is often the rhythm.



Music has a strange effect on our minds. We shift our rhythm to match the underlying beat. Most of us prefer simple rhythms that beat in multiples or fractions. If we match to 400 milliseconds, then we are receptive to beats of 100, 200 and 800 as well. Complex rhythms of say 5/3 need musical training to appreciate.

We’re not unique in matching. Chimps hoot in unison and fire flies flash together. Next time an audience applauds, listen and they’ll end up clapping in time at about half the initial chaotic rate. There’s less overall noise, but synchronization provides more impact. It’s a very powerful effect emotionally.

Strange things happen in our brain as we give in to the music’s rhythm. Our bodies start tapping and in extreme cases even dance. Compared to our normal state of mind, dancing is a weird activity, an almost trance-like release from social norms. Who hasn’t hollered and hugged complete strangers at a good concert? From primitive times to the present music seems to be important for social gatherings and creating bonds and trust between individuals. I’m not sure if nightclubs are continuing this or exploiting it, but they’re still fun.



Interestingly, the same area of the brain that responds to rhythm also detects the passage of time. Some researchers believe the inner metronome is the rate we sample life. Our brain “looks” at the world every beat and compares this “look” to the last one, focusing on what’s changed. We live life in pulses.

As we age, our inner metronome slows down. Babies tap at 300 milliseconds, children at 400 and adults at 600. Why, does life become more complex and we need more time to digest each pulse’s information? It could be why life feels like it’s speeding up as we age, everything is passing by a little faster. The phrase “he beats to a different drummer” to describe someone who is out there may be quite appropriate. Time passing could be a relative deal, too. When you’re 10 years old, one year is a 10 of your life, which feels like a lot. When you’re 100, one year doesn’t feel like much.

Now that the concert series has gone, I’m looking forward to the dancing. The Vail International Dance Festival is here. While I merely twitch to a beat, these people can soar in ways I can only wish. Anyone who can express music’s rhythm with grace and style is always fascinating to watch.

Older couples whizzing round the floor at weddings often steal the show.

These dancers have a level of athleticism, coordination and beauty that allows them to explore the music in ways that sometimes give you that “oh wow!” feeling.

It’s another great reason to live here.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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