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The Scotch Snap: everything you needed to know, and a hundred more questions

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This is probably the most interesting video I’ve ever seen on a musical question. If you want to know why, read on below the clip. As it happens, I’ve posted this on Robert Burns Day/Burns Night, so the topic of the Scotch snap couldn’t be more appropriate.

Philip Tagg: making sense of the Scotch snap at last

Philip Tagg and his articles have kept me sane since the day I discovered him somewhere around 1999.  He gets inside the same questions that perplex me about music, and is one of the few musicologists that make much sense when it comes to understanding dance and music.  One of the things that has intrigued me for years and years is the ‘Scotch snap’.

I’ve probably thought about it daily for about 10 years, mainly because of the Waltz in the ballet Giselle (1841) and that Mozart minuet in E flat, both of which exhibit scotch snaps in 3/4 time, and because my yearly trips to Prague have given me occasion to overhear Scotch snaps in Czech music, or at least folk music that’s played in Prague (which might be Slovakian or Hungarian, or Romanian, depending on who’s playing it, and when your maps were drawn).  One pianist I know deliberately plays the scotch snaps in the Giselle waltz as if they’re before the beat. When I asked him why, he said he’s always thought that bit ‘sounded silly’ if you play it like it’s written. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether some scotch snaps in classical music are  just notational errors:  I seem to remember reading that there are  instances where copyists would write a dotted rhythm using the semiquaver first as a kind of shorthand meaning the opposite. Can’t remember where I read that, unfortunately.

The Scotch snap and stress patterns in Croatian

And there’s more: as a student of living in Zagreb, I remember being fascinated by the comment of a Croatian translator who noted that since all stress in Croatian is on the first syllable, there was no iambic poetry in that language. Considering that iambs are so common in English (think of all those children’s skipping songs) the idea that a language could just exist without an iamb to speak of seemed bizarre. But I speak Croatian, so I know that it’s not.  Then there’s the added fact that Croatian/Serbian have accents of length as well as of stress, sometimes it’s really difficult to tell whether someone’s elongating a vowel, or stressing it – so someone could tell you that the accent is on the first syllable of a word, but to me it sounds like it’s on the second, because it’s a long vowel (the same is true of Czech sometimes).

The great thing about this video is that Tagg has done all the work that I knew needed to be done, but I wondered if I’d ever live long enough to start doing it. It’s a wonderful advert for the kind of interdisciplinarity that makes me get up in the morning, and which Tagg himself advocates in his 2011 article Caught on the back foot.  By the end of the video, there are just even more questions to ask, which to me is what good research is all about. And Tagg’s conclusion – that you should be looking for class divisions before ethnic ones if you want to understand issues like this in music – resonates hugely with a great article I read yesterday on the concept of the ‘ballet boy’ (Time to confront Willis’ lads with a ballet class?) – in which the author says that it’s class, not gender that’s the issue in ballet & Billy Elliot, but gender’s an easier issue to tackle if you’re trying to pretend that you live in a classless society.