Nice to see an article about marching music, one of the weird, esoteric topics that perplex ballet pianists like me: a 2018 conference paper by Niels Hansen, Nicholas Shea & David Huron called Do Dotted Rhythms Increase Performance Precision: Why Marches Have Dotted Rhythms (free to download from Academia.edu, but you’ll need to sign in with Google or Facebook, or create an account).
Read it for yourself, but the take home point is that although we’re prone to believe that marches have a dotted rhythm, a carefully selected sample of 200 pieces from IMSLP that are categorized as marches appear not to fulfil the stereotype. I think what the authors are getting at is that there are many reasons from a perceptual-motor point of view why marches would be better off having dotted rhythms: it’s easier to synchronize to a beat when it’s divided thus, particularly in the preparation for a downbeat. Despite this, the numbers just don’t stack up when you take a sample of marches from IMSLP, so the roots of the “conjectured propensity” for marches to have dotted rhythms lie in culture, rather than practical, physical concerns.
The march as musical topic
An example (mine, not theirs) of such a cultural source for the idea can be found in Raymond Monelle’s The Musical Topic: speaking of a march in an 18th century opera Monelle notes that “the musical figures are in a dotted rhythm, like marches in all ages” (p. 161). Here’s another: dance and music historian Marian Smith in “The Forgotten Cortège,” in Bewegungen zwischen Hören und Sehen: Denkbewegungen über Bewegungskünste (2012, pp. 405-416)
“The Opèra procession’s sense of immediacy was enhanced by its music, for the march (the usual type of music used)—in real life and on the stage—attracted its listeners physically. After all, it was a genre intended to inspire and sustain walking; to supply the energy of forward motion. This attraction was achieved mainly by its rhythms (which typically included triplet figures and dotted rhythms), whatever the tempo or mood—though the tempo was always (by definition) walkable.” (p.411).
Annoyingly, I cannot remember where I read it — possibly in Eric McKee’s book on the waltz, maybe in one of Lawrence Zbikowski’s many articles on music, dance and meaning—but someone more scholarly than me has made an important point that the more music is composed as a recollection, a souvenir or representation of dancing, as opposed to music practically intended for dancing, the more prominent are the rhythmic patterns that signal the dance in question. Listening to music for aesthetic enjoyment, watching an opera, you are being presented with the idea of other people marching, you aren’t doing it yourself, nor is there probably much marching going on on the stage—there isn’t room, or a large enough cast. The responsibility for signalling “this is a march” thus lies more on the music than on the physical movement.
By the same token, many different dance/music forms—polkas, reels, rags, marches, hornpipes, galops— will suffice if you want to do a polka as long as it’s roughly the right tempo, but if you are in the Wigmore Hall and you want to titter behind your fan at your neighbour and gesture knowledgeably “Oh what a pretty little polka the pianist is playing!” then you’re going to need big signals from the rhythm of the music that it’s a polka that the composer wanted you to hear (so it’s likely to be a tune with a rhythm that sounds like “potato chips”). And it won’t particularly matter about the tempo either (which is why you’re unlikely to find ballet pianists by going to the Wigmore Hall).
The conclusions of the conference paper don’t undermine Monelle’s point, which is that the dotted rhythm is a kind of musical-literary symbol of a march and the military, regardless of what people actually march to—rather like his other concept, the cheval écrit: a horse represented in music, not a horse-horse. Similarly, even as early as Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911), there was a musical symbol for “ballerina” (slow, tinkly waltz) which persists today, though Stravinsky surrounding it with music which itself defied the stereotype while real ballet was going on.
Perhaps it was a little reckless for Monelle to say “like marches in all ages,” and perhaps he was seduced in that regard by the proliferation of dotted rhythms in the musical literature that he specialised in, but he was talking about soldiers and the military as a topic in music, not a genre of music for marching to. It’s not altogether surprising that in music that was actually intended for marching, dotted rhythms are somewhat redundant and unnecessary. For one thing, you’re already marching, so the rhythm of your step is doing half the work. Marching to a tune that sounds like it’s marching is like buying a dog and barking yourself. . . kind of.
These relatively simple questions—about what makes a march a march, and how is listening to a march as a cultural signifier different to actually marching—are quite basic to choosing repertoire for ballet classes, and ought to be lesson one in talking about dance rhythms in the context of ballet, yet it’s rare to see them raised or discussed in a scholarly context, supported or challenged by empirical research. I have some issues with the sampling procedure: the collection of music on IMSLP is to my mind a strange place to look, given that what is there is dependent on what is out of copyright, and what people around the world have decided to upload. I’d be more interested to see data drawn from, say, recordings of march music made by bands that actually march or play for marching.
Keeping in time in real-life marching
William McNeill’s book on marching and drill (Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History) is frequently cited whenever an author wants to quickly make a scholarly reference to the joys of being together in time. Less well-known is the excited flurry of expert argumentative correspondence that followed a review of the book in The Times Literary Supplement in 1996 (I’m indebted to the detailed footnotes in Kate van Orden’s 2005 book Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France for pointing me towards this wonderful exchange of views.) The debate on those pages is inconclusive, but eye-opening. A particularly interesting one was from 6th September, by John Keegan, who argued that drums might serve a number of purposes in troops, including frightening the enemy, but keeping in time was problematic:
“Music can detract from precision drill. The explanation was suggested to me recently by a former adjutant of the Scots Guards, who revealed that the end of a column, if it marches to the received beat of the band, will be out of step with the head of the column. Guardsmen therefore learn to carry the pace in their heads, and actually march off the beat they hear, when they know that the speed of the sound through the air is misleading them. (The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Friday, September 06, 1996; pg. 17; Issue 4875.)
As a result, he concludes that “soldiers had, from about 1760 onwards, to programme themselves to the idea of a cadenced step” —that is, I suppose, it’s something they had to do themselves, based on judgement and skill, not by synchronizing to an external beat. I recognize that sensation: in the days when I used to be an organist, there was one church that had a “choir” organ in a side chapel. The delay in sound was about half a second, so to keep in time you had to pay attention to the rhythm and tempo of your hands on the keyboard, and ignore what you were hearing. As an accompanist, there’s a kind of reversal of this in class: you clearly can’t accompany everyone at the “right speed,” and even in a solo, you have to look at a dancer and judge the tempo that you think they really want overall, rather than the one they appear to be giving in the moment—they may be rushing, or lagging, or have tripped over themselves. I imagine that for dancers it must be similar: if the tempo of the accompaniment is unstable, they have to find a way of being more or less in time, without being pulled hither and thither by the music.
I thought of this whole topic as I was re-reading an interview with a conductor talking about the way that you conduct the front desk of the violins, but the ones at the back are following the movement of the bows in front of them; if you conduct for the back desk, then the ones in the front are going to be ahead, and so on. And that’s leaving aside the fact that people hear and respond to beats differently.
And finally, the “ballet march”
Over the years I’ve played for ballet, I’ve come to realise that there are dance rhythms that are particular to ballet class: the habañera/tango that is so slow, it almost grinds to a halt; the ronds de jambe waltz that is like stirring a vat of porridge with an oar; the medium allegro 6/8 that is neither a jig nor a waltz; the “waltz” for grand allegro that is so big and fat you could fell trees to it. And then there’s the Grands Battements March, which I’ve already written about in an earlier post. People of my generation used to refer to this as “stripper tempo,” referring to the David Rose tune The Stripper of 1962 [NSFW], but even that tempo sounds too jaunty for the 21st century grand battement.
Interestingly, though, the rhythmic model of that grands battements march, often sung (slowly) by ballet teachers is Non più and’rai from The Marriage of Figaro, or the march from The Thieving Magpie, both of which have the dotted rhythm-to-downbeat rhythmic figure that the authors of this research refer to, yet tend not to find in their survey of the IMSLP marches. That illustrates their point again, that the figure is probably a cultural phenomenon, rather than one occasioned by the needs of marching itself. At the same time, the ballet example perhaps indicates one of the routes through which such cultural work is done: the tune comes out of the opera house and into the ballet studio, and tends to stay there. Play Colonel Bogey or The Liberty Bell and it won’t feel like a “marchy march,” even though those tunes are probably much more common as actual marching music. But play the much more recent Darth Vader theme from Star Wars (the “Imperial March“) and there is that dotted rhythm again, illustrating once more the resilient potency of musical topics—which was exactly what Monelle was writing about.