Tag Archives: rhythm

Dance rhythms fight back: the 9/8 hornpipe


The Serag's Hornpipe, from 1721 (17th edition) Playford

A while back I started collecting examples of ‘dance rhythms to annoy your music teacher with’. Nothing makes me more frustrated than the term ‘dance rhythms’. There are several generations of dance teachers who’ve been told somewhere along the line that a hornpipe goes like this, a waltz goes like that, and a tango goes like that. One of the reasons that music for ballet classes is so often as terrible as it is, is because pianists try to recreate music based on these formulas, and then this music becomes the model by which the theory is ‘proved’ and exemplified. For some reason, whoever started this decided to ignore all kinds of uncomfortable truths about dances that were really danced, as opposed to being clapping exercises.

For this reason, one of my favourites pastimes is to collect examples from the real world of dances that buggers up the theory. Here’s a nice one from the 17th (1721) edition of Playford’s Dancing Master, a hornpipe in 9/8. Stick that in your hornpipe and smoke it.

Latest research in music perception & cognition


If there’s one area of music research that really grabs me, it’s music perception & cognition. With astonishing speed, considering it only took place at the end of August, the abstracts from the 11th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition are available online, all 95 pages of them. This is like a massive variety performance of all the top stars of the MP&C world.  One of my favourite papers is  ‘The Social Side of Avian Movement to Music’ by Aniruddh Patel, John  Iversen & Irena Schulz. To cut a long story short, the question is whether parrots dance differently if there’s another human in the room that’s dancing to a different beat through headphones – and the answer seems to be, yes they do – they adapt their dancing to co-ordinate somewhat with the human.

Musicking – the rough guide


What a fantastic resource this is: a truly whistle-stop guide from the Victoria Sings programme to everything that is current and trending in the world of interdisciplinary music studies (not that this even does justice to the range of things covered here). Thinking about musicking? The origins, purpose, function, results and value of music is one of the best guides I’ve seen to the array of disciplines and authors that are relevant to my subject area of music and dance in educational and training contexts.  The longer I work in this field, the more remote I feel from many of my colleagues, because it’s not a field, it’s a federation of fields like Suffolk seen from above. But suddenly, looking at this page, I don’t feel weird any more, and it’s nice to know that others are trying to draw it all together too.

The main part of the page is a very accessible, concise glossary of terms used across the disciplines (like rhythm, music perception, amusia etc.). But each one is hyperlinked to relevant sources –  currently contains 96 keywords, 185 cited individuals, 160 institutions where research is carried out, 79 periodicals, 55 conferences and 1,922 articles.

Congratulations. This is going straight on one of my reading lists.

Musical surprises #15: It’s musicians who count weirdly, not dancers


The term ‘dancers counts’ is often used in a rather perjorative way – as if they’re incapable of seeing and hearing the world normally.  Even dancers use the term against themselves sometimes: teachers sometimes say ‘You’ll probably think I’m counting this all wrong but…’

Now there are times when a dancer’s choreographic map laid over the music is structurally different to what the music appears to say, just like two lines of contrapuntal music might be different rhythmically (the concept of counterpoint in music is revered, why should it be weird in dance?). And some choreographers may ignore musical structure or not recognise it – but that’s some choreographers not ‘dancers’ as a group.

But what I’m talking about is when dancers count, let’s say, two in a bar, when the time signature says 4/4, or four in a bar when the time signature is 2/4, or in four when the music is in 3/4 or 6/8 (i.e. they’re counting duple hypermetre).

In this case, it’s not the dancers that are weird, but the musician: pulse is a sensation. It’s a sensation for dancers and musicians. If you choose to notate that sensation in a way that is rational but counter-intuitive, then who’s the weird one?  Real metre as perception can’t be fixed, because it’s dependent on tempo and what you’re doing to the music. Again, it’s notation that’s the oddity, not movement or perception.

Musical surprises #9: Hornpipes are in 3…



For many people, especially dance teachers, ‘hornpipe’ is synonomous with 2/4 time. But there is another hornpipe in 3/2, particularly common in English baroque music, an example being Purcell’s Hole in the Wall (see below). Another example is the Scottish tune ‘Dance to your Daddy‘, the rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer that’s used in Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or the hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music. What those last three tunes have in common is that until about a year ago, I had never realised they were in three  – I hadn’t ever considered what their metre was, because in fact, metre in the sense of regular grouping accents doesn’t seem to emerge from those tunes – they just seemed to me  to flow as melodies without sensing that they’re in 3  or 2 – or anything in fact.  I sometimes wonder why I would teach people to try and perceive patterns in music that I don’t perceive myself, even with my musical training. I’m afraid I have no answer to that yet.

The Hole in the Wall

And the water music hornpipe:

The bifurcating waltz, moths & Van der Merwe


A moth on a Tooting tileWarning: this post may contain traces of moth

Spent the day at Senate House Library (the music bit), on one of my regular-ish trawls for new stuff to include in modules about music for dance teaching. It’s a very odd and frustrating corner of the musical universe that I plough, and looking for relevant recent research was, as usual, a bit like doing Christmas shopping – you find loads of things that you’d like for yourself, or for people that you never buy presents for; or many things that would suit the same person.

There was one rather satisfying find though: Peter Van der Merwe’s book The Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Classical Music, which has a useful chapter on ‘The Dances of Central Europe’. Bear with me as I explain why (or don’t – this won’t be funny):

Students of mine (and patient friends who have to listen to this kind of thing in the pub) will know that I’ve coined the rather clumsy phrase ‘truly triple metre’ to distinguish those dances which don’t fall victim so readily to what Rothstein called the ‘great 19th century rhythm problem‘. And my idea of punishment is having to explain to people what ‘the difference between 6/8 and 3/4’ is, because for as long as one bar of 3/4 is part of a set of two bars of 3/4 (which they mostly are) there is no audible difference. The only difference is one of notation, and unless you’re fluent in music notation, what’s the first thing you ask – ‘can you play it to me so I can hear it’. But the whole point is, you can’t hear it, no more than you can feel the arctic circle.

Now Van der Merwe has this rather cute theory: he reckons that as the waltz developed in the 19th century, ‘the basic, unrepeated waltz strain (in other words, the bit before the double-bar line) now takes up sixteen bars instead of eight’. The only way for the waltz to expand any further, he argues, was ‘by repeated doubling, like an organic cell’ (Growth by doubling, p. 250). Now I agree with his end result, but I don’t quite agree with how he gets there. I think he’s right, but I think he’s right because it’s the basic ‘unit’ of the waltz which has doubled itself from something containing three steps (in the non-dance sense of the word), into two sets of three steps subsumed into a duple hypermeasure, which then far more readily accrues more duple hypermeasures.

Moth music

All of which is far too complex a hammer to crack a simple nut – it’s only a waltz, after all. Far too complex, until you look, as I did this morning by chance, at a moth, whose mirror-symmetrical wings illustrate perfectly the expansion of two triple units into a hypermetrical duple thingy, which itself is just a ‘thing’. Each wing is roughly speaking a ‘triple’ thing, because the proportion of the segments is 2:1, and that’s what music in 6/8 often tends to do. It’s when the symmetry is missing – e.g. if the second half of the bar were simply, contour-wise, to be a repeat of the first, in a kind of saw-tooth shape, then you’ve got a saw-tooth, not a moth – in my terms, truly triple metre.

Ah well, back to the ironing.

Rhythm and ‘rhythm’


RhythmFunny how you can be blinded by your own prejudices. I’m afraid I probably am the kind of person who says “I don’t use that button”, pointing to the drum rhythm pattern selector on my electronic keyboard.

What a dumbo. For ages, I’d struggled with the problem of using a metronome when you’re wearing headphones, not to mention struggling with the boredom induced by practising pages of arpeggiated semiquavers where only endless repetition and gradual increase of speed works.

It was only because I’d been working with a producer who advocated making rhythm tracks to record to rather than simple metronome clicks, that it occurred to me that I could use the rhythm selector on the keyboard as a metronome, notes & rhythm all coming through headphones at the same time.

And of course, it works like a dream. Not only is it much, much easier to practise to something that has a pattern and push to it, it’s a lot more fun. And most importantly, rhythm patterns also mark out the beginnings of bars, and frequently have a bit of a turnaround in them too. And depending on the music, and the beat you’ve selected, you might get a little pattern all to itself for each quarter-note, which gives extra life to a single note – something a metronome will never do.

And then there’s the fact that you’ve got about 200 rhythms to choose from, and an easy way to push the tempo up a beat at a time. When you’re a bit out of practice (as I am), it’s really annoying to play through stuff when you know that you’re being unrhythmical, so I decided to treat myself to a rhythm pattern while I played through one of my favourite pieces, Bach’s Italian Concerto (I happened to love Jacques Loussier’s Bach albums, so it was great fun). To my astonishment, with the benefit of a rhythm pattern, I discovered that I’d completely misconceived the rhythm of two bars in the first movement, because I’d misplaced the beginning of the bar in my head. A metronome click, ironically, doesn’t tell you anything about metre.

But just as some people think that you can only possibly practice ballet to piano music that sounds like something Hummel would have written when he was 12, there must be an invisible Berlin Wall in the minds of classical musicians that divides ‘rhythm’ (metronomes) from ‘rhythm’ (in the sense of ‘I got rhythm’), otherwise why would anyone want a simple metronome?

Medium jump: Winter from ‘The Four Seasons’ (Vespri)


This is day 20 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

Medium jumps are, for my taste, the most difficult things to accompany in class. While a medium sized jump for a dancer requires considerable effort, skill & preparation, ‘medium’ in music is a potentially deadening adjective. Moderato, moderation, moderate, it’s like someone saying ‘I think we’ll just order a small glass each, shall we?’ when you’re ready for at least a bottle.

Worse still, when it comes to things in triple metre, a ‘medium’ waltz is just about the worst thing you could play for allegro. It will, quite literally, never get off the ground, and why should it? Waltzes are about turning and gliding, not jumping.

Look in the opera-ballet repertoire of the 19th century, and you find what we were looking for all the time – a nice, bouncy dance in triple metre, at a moderate tempo, but with the same kind of strength & elevation as the jumps that it accompanies.  It’s a combination of a lot of factors. Look at this one from I Vespri Siciliani and you see, for example:

  • A solid floor (pedal note in the bass) for the melody to bounce off, rather than the 2-bar shuffle between tonic & dominant you get in a waltz
  • A leaping melodic contour with a large tessitura & and an anacrusis that has considerable welly
  • Occasional implied or real accents on the second or third beats of the bar, which prevents the bass from ‘walking’
  • Lots of little acciaccaturas to spice up the melody line

The second half (which no-one ever seems to play) is very ingenious too – the ‘cadence’ of the first part becomes the beginning of the second tune, so that you feel as if you’ve suddenly lost a beat, but it all gets paid back in the end, and once you’ve heard the whole piece, that bar becomes a kind of trompe l’oreille – you can never say whether it’s the beginning of something or the end of something – and as it happens, the piece never ends, because it goes straight into