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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.

3 thought on “More (sorry!) on triple metre and ballet classes”
  1. Hi Jonathan,

    very interesting post, thank you!

    Once one of my ballet students asked me, if “Rond de Jambe par terre” is always in ¾ time signature. I said: “well, most commonly!” But I couldn’t believe that others time signatures were not really possible. Than I just founded a 4/4 (in one of my CD that music was for “Pliés”) which just worked! I don’t know how this music it’s written. I just know it worked good for Ronds de Jambe.

    And yes, sometimes a 6/8 works good! For exemple this (from Coppelia 3 act, variation “La prière”).
    I think, it’s funny and useful to try to differ from “commun rules”. It keeps ballet students ears awake!

    I generally indicate musical subdivision to pianist only when I really want a Waltz, a Mazurka, or a Tango, a Tarantella, etc… In other cases I think teachers shouldn’t indicate musical subdivision. For every exercice it can be used more than one possibility. Why putting limits on pianist’s creativity?

    Keep writing! I love your posts.


    1. Thank you, glad you liked this post, and thank you for the comment!

      I sometimes play “Prière” from Coppélia for ronds de jambe too or battements fondus too, it works well. The diagram in the post shows why there – at least to some extent – needn’t be any noticeable difference between 6/8, 3/4 or even 4/4, if it’s a 4/4 like the one I’ve shown here. So much depends on the fine detail of the music. If a 4/4 is subdivided with triplets (as with “What a Wonderful World”) then to a listener, it might sound more as if it is in 6, rather than 4.

      I was going to say in this post that it’s only when you have a particular thing in mind (like a mazurka, polonaise etc., or if you want to do a tendu, say, on a 3 rather than a 4) that it becomes crucial. In adage and port de bras, however, where there is so much “music” between the beats, it usually matters far less.)

      I guess the problem is that you have to be quite experienced and confident as a pianist to be able to think of different possibilities for the same exercise, and teachers are usually taught to give instructions to the kind of pianist who has no idea what to play. For me, the relevance for ballet teaching of Prausnitz’s comment about conducting is that you should know when to stop subdividing because it isn’t helping anyone, or the music!

  2. Great post Jonathan! Always so interesting to read your posts with such a deep analysis. And good point Gabri. I’ll need to read it again all through one more time to get all the information and ideas 🙂

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist