All fingers and thumbs


In an earlier post, I described how a nasty accident with a food processor blade helped me to understand a passage about the history of piano technique in Nicholas Cook’s Beyond the Score, in a particularly visceral way.  Since then, I have also had a nasty accident with a pair of secateurs (I nearly cut off the end of my left index finger), and learned that cycling with a heavy rucksack is bad for you (I’ve trapped a nerve so badly, I can’t feel the end of my RH index finger).

These things have illuminated another passage in Beyond the score. The LH finger just hurts, so I have to be careful what I do with it, but the RH numbness is one of the most annoying things I’ve ever done to myself, and much more of an impediment to playing the piano. Until this happened, I had no idea how important “touch” as a sensation was when you are playing the piano. I don’t mean what you do to the piano keys, but what comes back to you from the keyboard. You don’t know what you’re doing, unless you can feel it. You think that controlling touch is about considering the amount of weight or force that you will give to a particular finger, but your judgement depends on getting feedback from your finger on the key. When you can’t feel it, you don’t know what you’ve done, like walking in the dark. The strangest part is that I can’t hear what I’m doing with my RH now. Whenever I put my index finger on a key at the moment, I have no sense of how hard I’m hitting it, and it’s like someone just blocking my ears.

As this problem persisted, it reminded me constantly of chapter 10 (p. 308 onwards) in Beyond the Score that deals with the role of the body in music-making, and how playing an instrument is not all top-down motor control, but an interplay between that and your bodily constraints and possibilities. The first time this really came home to me was watching someone play gospel on a hammond organ, and seeing him use his left forearm like a seesaw on the keyboard from left-to-right in order to give that characteristic sweep up to a note in the right hand. You hear it as a voice-like musical gesture, but there’s no way that this started off as an idea in a composer’s head – this is a style and a sound that is an affordance of elbows, forearms and Hammond keyboards. You couldn’t imagine that sound unless you’d physically made it, and the only way to make it is to do what no piano teacher would ever teach you to do.

I’m fortunate to have been treated for that nerve problem by a brilliant Czech physiotherapist, and the treatment has cast even more light on this top-down/bottom up issue.  He has encouraged me to think of playing from the fifth finger rather than the inside of the hand. It’s not to do with piano technique, but about sending messages to your brain that engage muscles in your upper body to such a degree that immediately changes your posture and weight placement, as if by magic. It changes you from resting your hands on the keyboard, to placing them there from a completely controlled position. The control in the back comes from a movement that starts in the hand, it doesn’t end there, and it doesn’t come from thinking about your back. I was enthusing about this to one the ballet teachers here, and said, “It’s amazing, you think your mind controls your body…” and before I had finished the sentence, she burst out laughing and said “Oh no, we’re not that clever!”  The mind-body problem in a nutshell.

Greetings from Prague – and from Radio Silence


At the excellent advice of someone whose excellent advice has never failed me yet, I’m taking a one week vacation from Facebook and Twitter and a couple of other social media sites. This isn’t self-righteousness, I make no apology for loving Facebook and what it affords – but my friend said his recent self-imposed exile was “like having an extra week’s holiday.” Who could resist that?

If you’re interested in how, I installed Stayfocusd on my Macbook, and temporarily deleted the Facebook and Twitter from my phone.  It will be interesting to see how many ways there are to get round that.  I’m already an almost daily user of Freedom for when I’m writing, and after only half an hour, I think I’m going to love Stayfocusd.

Národní street in Prague, with the National Theatre at the end.

Národní street in Prague, with the National Theatre at the end.

New metre and rhythm page


After 11 years of having odd articles about rhythm and metre all over my old site at, I decided it was time to reduce it all down to a page of the books and articles on rhythm that I got most of it from, rather than try to rewrite it to a standard that I’ll be happy with.

Although it might not seem like much, it’s a significant day in my life, and of my online life, because it signals the end of my belief that there is anything simple to say about meter and rhythm as soon as it gets outside of its comfort-zone of music notation for the purpose of reproducing music (mainly of the Western art music tradition).  That’s not to say that you couldn’t teach the subject from an elementary entry point upwards  - but what you’d start with would be very different to conventional music “theory” in the sense of time signatures and so on (I’d probably start with the tensions between time-discrete and time-continuous concepts of meter).

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read some of it yourself, on my Metre and Rhythm page.

And now for something completely sextuple


This variation by Mozart on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman”, K.265/300e has turned out to be a real life-saver in class for one of those ballet exercises where you need a 6/8 that gives you six quavers in a bar (click here to hear it). If you’re thinking “But that’s not a 6/8,” hold on, I’m coming to that.

Ah, vous dirai-je maman', K.265/300e, Variation 3

Ah, vous dirai-je maman’, K.265/300e, Variation 3

It’s  useful for class, but it’s also an example of a particular kind of 6/8 that does what you’d think it would do, i.e. articulate six quavers that you can hear and count. Not that you’d want to count them, but they’re there, so you can hear why it’s called a six. Many pieces in 6/8 don’t go like that (they just jig along rumpty-tumpty fashion, so they sound barely distinguishable from a 2, so to see why it’s a six, you have to imagine the beats that you can’t hear.

It’s things like this that make me dread trying to explain compound metres such as 6/8, coupled with the fact that the term “compound metre” (or “compound time signature”) does not convey anything useful or hearable in the “compound” part. The meaning that “compound” once had in this context is rarely taught in music theory  – that a 6/8 was at one time a way of writing two bars of 3/8 as compound bar, thus halving the number of barlines you had to draw.

Well, that’s part of the the story, at least. In Danuta Mirka’s Metric Manipulations in Haydn and Mozart,  she explains that the eighteenth century theorist Koch viewed 6/8 sometimes as a “compound metre” in this sense, and sometimes as a “mixed meter” or a simple meter of “tripled beats”. That is, some 6/8s are basically just 2/4s with triplets (and some 9/8s are just 3/4s with triplets), but for notational ease, you might sometimes write the “tripled” 2/4 as 6/8.

The difference is crucial – one is triple subdivision (tripled 2/4), the other (compound 6/8) is triple meter, even if they’re both notated as 6/8. Which brings us back to a well-worn topic on this site, truly triple meter. It’s truly triple rather than sextuple, because to Koch, it’s a compound of two 3/8 bars (with equal weight in both halves of the bar, and quavers establishing the meter. That in turn is one reason perhaps why Mozart didn’t write this as 6/8. It’s clearly duple, rocking between stronger and weak beats in each bar.

This is why it’s so hard to teach about compound time signature as a concept to those (like dance teachers) who are trying to understand how it relates to hearing music. To recap a previous post: If you look at many music primers, they’ll tell you that compound time signatures are where the beats are divided into three, and simple are where they are divided into two. Nothing about the term “compound” suggests “divided into three”, and if you’re looking at a time signature like 6/8, unlike the simple meters, there is no visible beat to be divided, it’s already been divided as part of the time signature. It makes no sense, unless you  explain what I’ve explained above, which also explains what is simple about simple meters – not that the beat is divided into two, but that the bars are single units, not joined together as in compound signatures. But also, “compound time signature” only describes one concept of 6/8, and one which does not continue into the 19th century and beyond, where we describe it as if it were a duple metre with triple subdivision.

That is the why the Mozart piece is relatively unusual, and so useful. It is duple with triple subdivision, but it tips over into the realm of a truly triple meter because the movement that one hears, clearly on the musical surface, is of a continuous triple meter. It is hard to retain tripleness in the metrical slipstream of a piece which is duple at another level, but Mozart does it. Tears for Fears’ song “Everybody wants to rule the world” does it some of the time – there’s a constant, steady, truly triple 6/8 going on in a lot of the music, but the vocal line  exerts a strong duple pull.  Mozart’s advantage is that the tripleness is centre-stage in the melody, it’s not a support act. In “Everybody wants to rule the world”, it’s not exactly melody and accompaniment, they are simultaneous, equally salient layers of the music which both draw your attention (incidentally, the song’s time signature as published is notated in 12/8 with (4/4) in brackets).

Disambiguating 6/8s into those which are characterised by triplet subdivision, and those which are truly triple meter seems to me to solve the problem, because it’s how people in the real world hear this music. You could argue that you should teach basic time signature before these more complex topics, but to my mind, teaching “compound time signature” by saying it “means” dividing a beat into 3, is oversimplifying the case to the point where it becomes difficult to understand because it doesn’t make sense. Koch’s theory isn’t simple, but it makes sense, and it reflects clearly the fact that 6/8 is not a single concept, but, echoing Justin London’s “many meters hypothesis”, it is a structure that has multiple expressions in real music.  A differentiation between two types of 6/8 is partially clarified in Labanotation and Benesh Notation, because you have to say what level of the beat you’re using as your pulse. However, the issue here is not about the pulse that you count or sense as being the main beat, but level of beat where the musical action happens. Music could be truly sextuple (i.e. triple x 2) compositionally, but whereas a dancer might not count it that way if it’s fast, the composer on the other still writes it that way, because that’s how the music moves.

It would be good if in ballet teaching we had words to describe different kinds of 6/8, at least at the point at which you learn about time signatures, so that you can account for the fact that some don’t sound like six at all, and some do. We need something like a “triplety-two” and “truly sextuple” and a “swingy two” for those things like 6/8 marches that barely reveal any of their sixy undergarments, and possibly a few more. Dance rhythms are handy – but only if both parties (teacher and musician) have the same shared vocabulary and understanding, and only up to a point. It would be nice to be able to have something that was like a 6/8 march metrically, but wasn’t a 6/8 march culturally (or is that impossible?).  Any ideas for some new terms?



Laptops in the classroom and multi-tasking


The case for banning laptops in the classroom is a blog by Dan Rockmore in the New Yorker on the surprising proposal by one of the lecturers to ban  laptops in programming classes  at Dartmouth.  I say ‘surprising’, but it doesn’t actually surprise me, since I’ve noticed that of all people, programmers and other exceptional thinkers in just about any field tend to regard notebooks or conversation as a more appropriate tool than computers for doing conceptual work (see earlier posts of mine praising [real] notebooks and even record cards).

But the main point about laptops in class is that they’re distracting. The message of one study on the subject “aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.” What I like about the guy that proposed the ban, apart from the fact that this blog adds to my growing list of articles busting the myth of multitasking is that he’s not blaming the youth of today for being distractible, but acknowledges that laptops distract him as well, so why would it be any different for the people he teaches? 

At a conference last year I looked round the lecture room during one of the presentations, and noticed that many of the big-name researchers, due to give papers later in the conference, had their laptops open. Some were blogging, some were tweeting, some were rejigging their PowerPoint presentations, others were editing papers, checking emails or on Facebook. One was googling a term that the presenter had just used, another was looking up the book that they had just referred to on a slide. One was checking the football results, another was actually watching a game. Oh yes, and one was organizing his albums in iPhoto.

Remember, these are professors I’m talking about (in the colloquial sense of high-end academics), not adolescent undergrads. Coming from the ballet world where a teacher wouldn’t let a bunch of 6-year olds behave like this, I was pretty appalled. But what appalled me was the lack of leadership and sense of collective responsibility. I wanted the conference organizer or the person chairing the session to stand up and tell the room to get a grip, put their laptops away, and give the person at the front 20 minutes of their attention for god’s sake. As for tweeting and blogging about conferences while you’re in them, isn’t this a form of Facebook-style snap-and-post narcissism? Look at me! I was there! I heard this! It was really cool! But while you were typing that, your focus necessarily drifted from the next few sentences, if it was ever there much in the first place.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the lecture as a form. I like lectures. People who speak well can inspire. The talk I attended by Ken Robinson  eight years ago still inspires me, and remains a model to aspire to. But it’s a relational thing - lectures depend on the attention of the audience as well as the attention-grabbing skills of the lecturer.  And if lecturers themselves can’t keep their minds off football, funny kitten pictures or email, then don’t expect students to fare any better.

That Czerny tarantella from Etudes – found but unidentified


Posters in an Italian piano forum have been playing the same game as me – trying to identify the Czerny studies used in Riisager’s ballet Etudes. In my post on the subject, I managed to trace all of them (leaving aside any short quotes that Riisager may have thrown in along the way that I failed to recognise as quotes).

The one that I couldn’t trace was the tarantella – but those Italians have found it. Or nearly. They’ve found a score of it, in an anthology of Czerny studies published by Presser in 1906, freely available at Open Library. The tarantella is on page 66-67. The only trouble is, Emil Liebling may have “revised, edited and fingered” the studies “with annotations”, but he didn’t bother to identify them. Someone (like me) has been through with a pencil, marking the opus numbers of each study, but (also like me) couldn’t identify the tarantella.

The Italians found my page on Czerny and posted a link to it, noting that I hadn’t – (unlike them) – found the tarantella. “Per solidarietà, potrei scrivergli e dargli il suo pezzo mancante” says one of the posters – out of solidarity, you could write and give him the missing piece (message 50).  Yes, out of solidarity, you could have done, that would have been very nice. But it would be even nicer if you could actually identify which book/opus number the study is.  







More on “truly triple meter” – are Chopin’s waltzes really mazurkas?


After a previous post about triple metre and waltzes, some pianist colleagues and I had an ongoing discussion about particular pieces. According to our (my) definition, for a waltz-like piece to be classed as ‘truly triple’, cadences have to fall on the second main beat of a 6/8 bar, or, in 3/4, on the 8th bar of the phrase (otherwise it’s 3/4 “masquerading”, so to speak, as 6/8).

One musician cited Chopin’s Grande valse Op. 18 No. 1 (the finale of Les Sylphides) – is this truly triple, she asked? Well, yes it is. And so are most of the other waltzes. As I mentioned in our Facebook discussion, my composition teacher Malcolm Williamson once praised Chopin’s treatment of the harmony in his waltzes, that is, he’s careful to make sure that it changes in every bar. At the time, I don’t think either Malcolm or I knew enough about waltzing to discuss this from a metrical point of view, the point he was making was about maintaining harmonic interest.  One of Malcolm’s own great waltz tunes (he would probably not thank me for that, since he didn’t want it extracted from the opera as a single number), Thank You, Saint Seraphina, from Our Man in Havana was itself truly triple, which probably reflected his concern for both metric and harmonic interest.

From the little I know from having worked with him, the last thing he wanted was to have to wait in music – harmonic or metric inertia. And that’s the thing about 6/8s, once you know that you’ve arrived on 7, all you’re doing is just waiting for that extra beat. That can be OK sometimes, but in allegro, it’s not great.

Which brings me back to Chopin and the waltz. The  epigraph to chapter 6  of Eric McKee’s Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz is an interesting quote from Chopin

“I have picked up nothing that is essentially Viennese. For example, I can’t dance a waltz properly – that speaks for itself! My piano has heard nothing but mazurkas.”

I’m not saying that Chopin couldn’t write a waltz, or that his embodied sense of what waltzing was was too fragile to be able to incorporate it in music. But I wonder if the inherent tripleness of his waltzes is not a question of autonomous compositional technique in the ways that I’ve described it above, but a difficulty in shaking off an ingrained Mazurka habit.