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

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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.