Tag Archives: Justin London

More (sorry!) on triple metre and ballet classes

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One of the reasons that I’m very sympathetic to anyone who says they don’t “get” time signature, is that my own hearing and sense of metre can play strange  tricks on me. The most bizarre of these is when  I accidentally play the “wrong” thing for an exercise, and it turns out to be OK, because there’s some kind of metrical equivalence that I had never thought of before (there’s a diagram coming to explain that). It happens especially with music in  triple metre, a term I use guardedly as you’ll see below. 

Here’s an example: the other day, I did something in class that I don’t think I’ve ever done in 28 years of playing for ballet.  The teacher marked a ronds de jambe à terre exercise, a  bog standard 3/4 one, no surprises, no tricks. But as I was watching, the music that started playing in my head was What a wonderful world. It’s against all the unwritten rules of ballet (ronds de jambe must be on a dirgy 3, or – once, in about 1976, on a slow 4) that I hardly dared do it. But it went almost unnoticed, which is to say, nobody died, and everyone did the exercise, and the teacher didn’t stamp the floor and look shocked. So it does work.

If you think about it (which I did, for a few seconds before, to see whether it could possibly work in theory, and a long time afterwards, to explain why it did in practice) one bar of a 4/4 ballad-y thing like that, with triplets in the left hand, is at some level equivalent to a bar of 2 bars of 3/4. One reason why it’s not immediately obvious is because those six quavers are split down the middle in the 4/4, and into 3 lots of 2 in the 3/4. Another reason is that when you think “6/8”, “3/4” or “4/4”, you think certain kinds of music or tune, you don’t think about imaginary metrical levels that might connect them in a metric-theoretical universe.

Potential metrical alignments between three time signatures/tunes

Potential metrical alignments between three time signatures/tunes

The diagram above shows – metrically – how a 4/4 ballad with triplets, a tune in 3/4, and a tune in 6/8 could be used for the same exercise. Imagine the 6/4 written out in 6/8 with semiquavers instead of quavers, and played half speed.  I’m not offering this as a handy tip for solving problems in class – like I said, it’s taken me almost my entire career to work this out, and it makes my brain hurt to look at that diagram. I discovered the trick only this year, when playing for adages – when teachers mark something in what sounds like an impossibly slow 3/4, you can play a 4/4 ballad. I couldn’t work out the theory, I just found it worked.

One of the things that enabled me to work it out, was (mis)hearing a teacher counting a bar of 6/8 in a rehearsal – I couldn’t tell whether she was grouping the notes in threes or 2s, so it sounded sometimes like 3/4, sometimes like 6/8.  This connects eventually with my last post on the perils of being too “musical” as a pianist – ballet teachers are sometimes much “cleaner” and stricter in tempo than us musicians, and that’s why I was able to mis-hear what she was singing. The trouble (for pianists) with thinking in 3/4 (as in Santa Lucia in the diagram), is that under the influence of the tune or the main metre, the quaver accompaniment begins to slide into fancy “musical” performance. If, on the other hand, you mentally imagine that you’re grouping the quavers as 3+3 instead of 2+2+2 (as in the bottom line of the diagram) you slip out of the 3/4 tendency, and it becomes the steadier, more reliable undercurrent that is better in adage.

All of this makes me think that Justin London’s “Many Meters Hypothesis” is absolutely bang-on. Metre isn’t a neutral grid that you can just lay over or extract from music, so that all 3/4s are in some way equivalent. Quite the opposite – within the range of things that are in 3, for example, there are repertoires which have particular qualities of threeness, and you’ll recognise and parse these to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your musical enculturation. The proof of this, to me, is that the theoretical (metrical) equivalence of the three things that I’ve shown in the diagram is so strained as to still appear unusual and unintuitive, even when you see it written down and “proved” on paper. Each of those pieces has a particular feel which cannot be reduced to a unifying metrical level.

As chance would have it, I was skimming through Prausnitz’s Score and podium: a complete guide to conducting book on conducting (recommended to me by Gavin Sutherland, thank you very much, sir), and came across this terrific quote on page 115:

A timely caution: one good subdivision does not necessarily deserve another. Given the fact that most music is made between beats, it follows that the fewer the beats, the more music making can take place.

That to me sums up the hazards of marking adages for the pianist. Teachers are encouraged to indicate musical subdivision to musicians, and sometimes, it’s good that they do. But in adage, the more they prescribe the subdivision, the less chance there is that you as the pianist can think laterally about how to fill the space between the beats. And for the teacher, those subdivisions are less significant, it seems to me, than they are for the pianist – but you have to be a brave soul to take the risk and play something other than was marked, in case the teacher really did want that thing she asked for. Nine times out of ten, I don’t think it matters whether adage is in triple metre when that’s what the teacher asks for. I’ll run and hide now.

Playing for ballet class tips #4: Forget about time signatures in ballet class

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Time signatures in ballet class: don’t get precious about them

There’s no polite way to say this—pianists, don’t get pissy about time signatures in ballet class. In other words, if a teacher says they want a 4 and then mark something that sounds like 6/8, don’t get on your high horse, play something in 4 and say ‘But that’s what you asked for’.  You might feel pleased with yourself for a second or two, but you run the risk of being known as that rather irritating pianist who pulled the teacher up on a technicality, while she had a dozen other things to think about.

Instead, look at the exercise, listen to all the clues you can, make a judgement about what you think the teacher is looking for based on all the information available (not just what they said when they started), and if it’s ambiguous, ask. In fact, rather than asking, it’s probably better to take a punt and play something  on the first side and see what happens. If the rhythm seemed ambiguous in the marking, it might be that it doesn’t matter that much, or that the teacher is not sure what would work best – in which case, there’s no point in asking, just let everyone have a go with some music and see whether it works.

Justin London's great book on metre

Hearing in Time by Justin London – a masterpiece of a book on metre and rhythm

If it goes wrong, there’s your answer. This empirical approach to music for class is a much better way to find out what works  than trying to pin down and theorize everything in advance, or trying to find fail-safe names for everything. The  obstacle to working this way is fear of getting it wrong, of losing face, and once that fear sets in on both sides (teacher and pianist), you’re on a terrible journey. But if you don’t  look to the teacher to know everything in advance, and instead create an atmosphere where it’s OK for both of you to get it wrong now and again, you’ll live long and be happy.

Life without time signatures

The other reason to forget about time signatures is that if you categorize music by time signature, you’ll miss a lot of cases where the metre of the music as it sounds is ‘hidden’ behind the time signature. Here’s a few examples:

  • Music for grand allegro which is in 6/8 rather than 3/4 – think of all the wilis music in Act II Giselle, or the male variation of Tchaikovsky pas de deux. If you think ‘waltz’ or ‘3/4’, you’ll mentally rule out some of the best repertoire.
  • Slow music in 4 that has accompaniment in triplets can be reclassified as 3/4, 6/8, 12/8.
  • By the same token, a lot of ballady type music in 12/8 is of course effectively in 4
  • Hornpipes, if you swing them, turn from 2/4 into a kind 6/8, but you feel them as four. There’s not really a term for this – it’s just ‘bouncy’ music, and time signature is less relevant than what you do with the notes.
  • A baroque gigue-y type of music in 12/8 could be construed as four bars of 3/4. Teachers use the term ‘waltz’ or ‘3/4’ generically to mean something in triple metre, but don’t let the terms distract you from other forms and repertoire
  • The opposite applies to the ‘waltz song’ which can be, metrically, much more like a ballad in 4 with a triplet accompaniment. Disaster for allegro – not all that has ‘waltz’ written on it actually waltzes.
  • Hypermetrical organization is important – Morning has broken might be written in 3/4 (it isn’t always) but hypermetrically it’s 9/8 or 9/4, and you can hear it as a slow six. The one thing it isn’t, particularly, is ‘3’.

A lot of those bullet points came out of everyday experiences with music, but Justin London’s Hearing in Time , a wonderful book on the perception of time and metre in music, gave me a whole set of theoretical tools with which to look at music in different ways that became very useful when looking for new repertoire.  His online lecture How to talk about musical metre introduces some of the concepts from the book.