On The Rhythms Of Soccer And The Game Of Music

At home my wife and I watch a prodigious amount of English Premiere League soccer–that’s real football to the rest of the non-North American world. In earlier posts on this blog I have written about watching soccer and golf for their ambient sound potentials–the roar of the soccer fans, or the hushed-reverent tones of the golf commentators. But last week it occurred to me that what is truly interesting about soccer is its rhythm. I say this as a former avid player, a present avid viewer, and as an all around rhythm enthusiast.

Soccer creates rhythm in a number of ways. First, it’s a game of constant motion. Sure the ball may occasionally go out-of-bounds and someone will take a throw-in or a team will have a free kick, but for the most part the ball and the players keep moving for two 45-minute halves (which also means zero commercials). Contrast this with American football or baseball where the action happens in fits and starts. The constant motion of soccer–the motion of the rolling ball and the running players–creates a mostly seamless flowing rhythm.

Soccer is also a game of constant syncopation–that is to say, accentuation in unusual places. First, the ball’s motion is one of ever-changing velocities, tempos and angles–rolling on the ground, flying through the air, bouncing off players’ feet and bodies, spinning, and skidding. Not for an instant does the ball stay motionless and its trajectories are always shifting, always new. Similarly, the players keep moving into geometries that form, quickly vanish, and then re-form again, endlessly. At any given moment anywhere on the pitch you see players moving as if in different rhythmic meters, organizing themselves into a complex polyrhythmic dance around the moving ball, their body movements like accents within the collective rhythmic tapestry.

In addition to constant motion and syncopation, soccer offers space. Despite 22 players roaming the pitch, there’s always more empty green space than occupied space. This empty space is analogous to the space between notes in music: a static background against which we focus our attention on the moving players and the moving ball.

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But to flip the script for a moment: if soccer has a rhythmic dimension, does music making have game-like attributes? Consider a group of improvising musicians. Their improv takes place within some kind of musical behavioral frame that determines what, stylistically speaking, is fair play and what doesn’t really work. The musical actions of the musicians are analogous to the movements of soccer players on the pitch–collaborating with one another in real-time to achieve a goal. The actions of the musicians are also deeply and singularly focused on making a collective sound. That sound is analogous to the ever-moving soccer ball that is chased around the pitch. Indeed, it’s as if in both improvisational music making and soccer playing it’s the music/ball that leads everyone on their shared adventure of concentration, action, and dynamic interplay. Yet this analogy is not perfect. The goal of soccer is competitive: to score goals! While in music making–which, by the way, can be super competitive as well–the most satisfying moments are often those that don’t need to go anywhere at all. There’s no one keeping score either–just an assemblage of good feeling.

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