Meter vs subdivision: An easy solution to the ballet and time signature problem?


In the course of writing an article about the problems of ballet and time signature recently, I read a lot of books and articles about 18th century theories of meter. I’ve already blogged about that several times recently, as I found a lot of it helped to answer queries I’ve had for years.

As the dust has settled on the thoughts that I had for the article, I have come to a conclusion, for now at least, that “mixed meter” as the 18th century theorist Koch used that term, offers a really useful way of understanding meter and time signature problems in ballet teaching. I began to formulate that idea in And now for something completely sextuplebut I could say it even more simply now.

The problems I’m talking about are almost exclusively to do with triple meter, and the fact that in the kind of music that you get in ballet classes (i.e. predominantly 8-count or 8-bar phrases) there is always a possibility of counting in 2 or 4 rather than 3 – and if trainee ballet teachers have to learn about time signature, they often have difficulty understanding why something should be classified as a 3 or a 6 when it seems more natural to count it in 4.

If Koch were to come back to earth and teach such courses, he probably  wouldn’t say  “you’re wrong, it’s a 6,” he would have said “this is a tripled 2,” or “mixed meter” – you’re right, it is four, because the tune is moving predominantly in a 1,2, 1,2, fashion, rather than diddeley diddeley diddely diddely style, like a double jig, or Schumann’s Der wilde Reiter/The Wild Horseman.  Koch’s point was that these things that sound like fours, are fours, but you write them in compound time like 6/8 because it’s notationally easier. A true 6/8, or truly triple meter, is one where the movement of the tune coincides with the “6” in the top of the time signature.  The exceptions – and they have to be learned – are the triple jig, the polonaise, and the sarabande, and very slow versions of either minuet or mazurka (and of course, many other styles of music that are not so commonly used in ballet).

To put it another way, what matters about time signature if you’re trying to make a bridge between movement and music is not how many beats there are in a bar, but which beats carry the motion. This rather 18th century way of looking at it helps to distinguish meter from subdivision. If you define time signature only as how many beats there are in a bar, without also looking in individual cases at what  happens  in the melody or most salient part of the musical surface, then meter and subdivision get confused. That’s the kind of class where hapless students try to count “12” in a bar of 12/8 where Koch would have said, “Don’t count 12, because this is mixed meter, it’s really a 4, written in 12 for the sake of notational simplicity.”

It’s rather a shame that I’ve only just realised this at the point in my life where I no longer have to teach it, but that’s why partly why I keep a blog – to atone for my past conceptual sins.

Goffman and the office


The Guardian has published two articles on contemporary office design in the last two days – the first a diatribe by Jeremy Paxman, “If I were king for a day, I would ban open-plan offices,” the second a glowing vision of the future as if Paxman had never spoken: “Death of the desk: the architects shaping offices of the future.” Paxman cites the satirical programme W1A as an extreme, hilarious-if-it-weren’t-actually-true example of office design gone mad, the second article offers the architect’s defence.  With no hint of irony, it also describes new offices that will have a running track for employees, because with longer hours, workers need somewhere to “let off steam,” as if Google and others are doing their employees a favour. So much for the future envisioned in the 1970s where we’d have so much leisure, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

The bit that really caught my eye was this: Philip Tidd of design and architecture firm Gensler says things are changing, and that “[y]our seniority in the organisation, your status in the organisation, does not need to be reinforced by how much space you get.” If that is the case, then I can only wonder at the ways in which seniority and status are reinforced in a building where all the stage and props have been removed. In The presentation of self in everyday lifeErving Goffman brilliantly describes and analyses how people use props, costumes, “stage” and “backstage” areas in their workplaces to “perform” their role.  Once you’ve read that, it seems hard to believe that you could take away the conventional material expressions of status and not see new ones resurface somewhere else.

When I temped in offices in between music jobs, I was staggered at the way people in apparently un-theatrical professions were prone to unwitting displays of ego (a point I have to make constantly to people who think that the theatre is a place of unbridled egotism – it isn’t, you can’t get theatre made that way). You always know which are the consultants in hospitals: they’re the ones dressed like something out of Jeeves and Wooster (the circus and medicine are two of the few remaining professional arenas where loud shirts and bow ties are still acceptable costume).  The executive may not have the corner office any more, but their status is probably even more prominently displayed in the car-park, where they’ll have one of the only allocated spaces. Or they’ll have a Brompton folding bike, and bring it into the office (something which would be frowned upon lower down the food chain, I suspect). In 2012, the intern is given the problem of storing the executive’s Brompton in a building that has no useful space to store stuff away discreetly, frittering away his time, or forcing him to leave the bike somewhere awkward.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life amazingly timeless, such good observation and analysis that you have no sense that it was written 60 years ago. It encourages you to look out for precisely those activities and accoutrements of a perfomer (i.e. a normal person, performing their everyday life) that are either designed to be missed, or of which the performer is themselves unaware.  It’s not in Goffman’s book, but one situation that fascinates me is the so-called “open door” policy that some managers operate. Can there be anything more terrifying or status-affirming than having to judge whether it’s really OK to enter a manager or director’s office when the door is always open?

See also: great article on the pain of having to dress “appropriately” by Lauren Laverne. 

Oh so it’s not just me then – Facebook saturation point

Ajvar - a Hungarian told me he couldn't get it in Budapest, even though they're "next door" to Croatia. But here in Tooting, SW London, people even leave it on garden walls.

Ajvar – a Hungarian told me he couldn’t get it in Budapest, even though they’re “next door” to Croatia. But here in Tooting, SW London, people even leave it on garden walls.

Just a few weeks after my last post about my growing disenchantment with Facebook (and all social media, as it happens), I found an article by Theo Merz on the same subject in The Telegraph. “It increasingly feels like the party is happening elsewhere,” he says.

Roughly speaking, I agree, but I don’t think we’re looking for another party to join, so much as enjoying the forgotten pleasures of not being at a party, of enjoying some experiences for how they appear to us at the time, not reconstituting them for an imaginary public.

If anything has propelled me to the exit, it’s the trend for posting reasons to be cheerful, or 100 days of happiness and so on. I’m a big fan of positive psychology, and would recommend anyone to just list a few things they are pleased about in order to pull themselves a day and a millimetre at a time from whatever dark hole they’re in. I also like rubrics in blogs and posts – it’s prompts creativity and resourcefulness. I’m also happy if my friends are happy. But I feel that to post these things on Facebook is against the spirit of what makes focusing on positives work: if you’re feeling down, or finding it hard to get up in the morning, then the fact that you put the rubbish out on time – or some other task that everyone else seems to find routine and simple – can count as one of your three-a-day. But are you going to admit that to anyone except your closest friend or therapist? Probably not. Because Facebook is precisely the kind of forum in which you need to exercise careful impression management, to use Goffman’s term from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  





Facebook echo and rediscovering privacy

The Charles Bridge. Log-jammed because of people photographing their own passage across it

The Charles Bridge. Log-jammed because of people photographing their own passage across it

Don’t get me wrong: I love Facebook, and I am one of its most shallow users. I’ll post anything – videos and pictures of cats (a lot), pictures of things I’m about to eat, reposts from The PokeI love seeing other friends’ pictures of their day. The more trivial, the better, because it’s the trivia that colours and shades the detail of friendship.  But knowing how much I loved it made it easy to decide to have a break from it (see earlier post).

It wasn’t difficult to stop reading Facebook, in fact, it was rather like not having to scratch an itch anymore, but the impulse to post was an itch that wouldn’t go away.  Within minutes, I realised that using social media had developed a tic in my brain I call “Facebook echo” – an internal voice that samples your experience in slices and presents it back to you as a status update before you’ve had a chance to take the experience in as a whole – like hearing the reverb before you hear the sound.  Walking down a street, being with friends, eating in a restaurant, preparing a meal, reading the news, it didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, I’d find events echoing back to me as potential Facebook or Twitter posts, whether I would actually have posted them or not. Remember Fred Elliott in Coronation Street, who said everything twice, I say, who said everything twice? A bit like that.

Facebook echo digitises what was once an analogue experience – though the habit is so well-formed in my brain now, that I can hardly remember what it was like to live without running a rolling news service at the same time. Walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague (as I was when I started thinking about this) is no longer “a walk” but a series of photo opportunities that must be immediately captioned. The prospective status update makes you decide which bit of your experience to sample. Every glance, every thought and impression is processed, edited, captioned, categorized (humour, morals, social conscience, pet-hates, self-promotion, information, and so on).

I’m not taking the moral high-ground here: for one thing, I was thinking all this only because I was crossing the Charles Bridge to meet someone that I hadn’t seen for some years, but who I’d stayed in touch with on Facebook. By that time I’d decided not to use Facebook for a week, but my journey across the bridge was slowed down by people starring in their own celebrity biopics of themselves in Prague. Even two weeks on, the urge to turn everything into a status update or a tweet is still there, but without the means of scratching the itch, it wears off, as the attraction of smoking did after I gave up.

What I love is the return to privacy – to having a life that no longer has to be lived with your skin inside out. Andy Warhol’s predictions were not as accurate as people say, I think: we are not all famous for 15 minutes, we’re all starring in our own show 24 hours a day. If you’re not photographing yourself without make-up, someone else will be, as you become the unwitting backdrop for their selfie or holiday snap. Apparently 1 in 3 people would let their employer have access to their Facebook account in return for job security. If there was ever a reason to not have a Facebook account at all, this is it.  For my taste, the wresting of privacy from an individual is wrong, whether it’s Facebook, your employer, or  the Stasi/KGB who do it. When you’ve got a choice, to opt in seems crazy, but I think we are fast forgetting what privacy once meant, so there appears to be no choice to make.

PS: I did think later on, if I care so much about privacy, why am I making this post public? I have no idea.

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.