Can rhythms be fast?

Version 2Tempo is a deceptively tricky musical concept. On the face of it, it seems straight forward enough. Tempo is measured as the number of beats occurring in one minute given a steady rate, and that beat can be equal to any note duration, such as eighth, quarter, half, or whole note. There are tempo markings that broadly indicate that the tempo should be lively, very fast, moderately fast, moderate, slow, or very slow. There are the more precise metronome markings that indicate a precise number of beats per minute, and the note value that will be used as the unit of measurement. All of this makes tempo uncomplicated and clear to performers, because as the musician plays or sings, they are forming rhythms over a concrete pace of pulses that coincides with the instruction in the printed score or, as in the case of dance music, of the standard convention.

Tempo for the listener is more complicated. The listener does not necessarily know what the unit of pulse is, and so must match a pulse rate with the rhythm patterns they are perceiving. So while the performer may be playing a passage of 32nd notes at a slow 8th note tempo (a common situation in classical slow concerto or sonata movements), those 32nd notes are going by rapidly for the listener, who might organize the music into beats of 16th notes, making the tempo faster than for the performer, who is measuring those same 32nd notes in slowly moving 8th notes. In this case, it would be tempting to say that the tempo (measured in 8th notes) is slow, while the rhythm (as perceived by the listener) is fast. But the difference is not between tempo and rhythm, but instead between the unit used to measure (and perceive) rhythm. The same music can be said to be fast or slow depending on what note value is being used as the unit of the pulse.

A good example of this is the opening of the 4th movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major (Jupiter). The tempo marking is motto allegro, and the pulse is generally around 120 beats per minute. Yet the first four measures are whole notes, and so one note progresses to the next slowly, even as one perceives the pulse to be fast, in contrast to the accompanying eighth notes, which are flying four times faster than the fast pulse, almost to fast to track. Yet if we listen to the same music and track two measures as one beat, though many notes pass by, the tempo now seems extremely slow. It is all in what is perceived as the unit of pulse.

A second factor in the perception of tempo is meter. Meter is part of the rhythmic structure of music, and influences how listeners perceive the unit of pulse. In the Mozart example just cited, the tempo is only perceived as fast if the meter is perceived as alla breve. If the meter were perceived as two or four whole notes per measure, then the tempo is perceived as Andante at most. Meter defines how the listener groups note durations into patterns that can be divided and subdivided into equal parts. There are times when musicians will use a faster, subdivided tempo to improve accuracy, while they intend the audience to perceive a slower, unsubdivided tempo. The introduction to Dvorak’s symphony no. 9 (From the New World) comes to mind. Notice how the conductor conducts eighth notes an an Allegro tempo, while the music, when listen to without following the conductor, is perceived as being Adagio, as Dvorak intended.

I began by asking the question, “can rhythms be fast?” We are now in a position to answer that question by saying no, it cannot. The reason is that tempo is a measurement of degrees of fastness measured in beats per minute, whereas rhythms are a relationship between a beat and a duration which is shorter, equal to, or longer than one beat. Rhythms as they are perceived by a listener are not individual notes, but patterns of note durations perceived as patterns by their relationship to a beat, regardless of tempo. In other words, the rhythm pattern of one quarter note, two eighth notes, two eighth notes again, and  one more quarter note will be heard as such at any tempo as long as the quarter note is used as the unit of pulse. The notes can be made faster by increasing the tempo. The first sound is equal to a beat, the next four sounds are divisions of the beat into two equal parts, and the last sound is again equal to a beat. We cannot say the rhythm is faster or slower, because the fastness or slowness is entirely dependent on the tempo, the speed of the beats, not the durations, which set the interval of time from the end of one note to the beginning of the next.

While it is true that we arrive at the next note sooner if the last note was a sixteenth note than if it were a quarter note, the reason we arrive sooner is a shorter note duration, not a faster tempo. The tempo, which is the measurement of fastness, has not increased, the durations of notes, the measure of rhythm, has decreased. There is more activity within the beat divided into four equal parts than within the beat divided into two equal parts, but that is not an indicator of faster, of tempo, but of duration, of rhythm. Fast does not exist apart from a reference to pulse. Fast is a relative concept that is not dependent on duration, but on pulse. A flourish of 32nd notes is a group of very short durations, not very fast notes. Notes are not fast or slow apart from the pulse to which they are sounded, only the pulse itself can be considered fast or slow.

Strong Beat and Driving Rhythm Found in Top Classical Pieces

2011 Symposium2

The popularity of classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run symphony orchestras. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. Much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, but knowing what audiences do like and want to hear is important if orchestras are going to attract and audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.Top Ten Classical Pieces

While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of them are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.

Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.

It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker. 

In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.

Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of (Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from  The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.

What Are The Elements of Music?

2011 Symposium2

What are the elements of music? It sounds like a simple question, one to which you’d expect a straightforward answer; perhaps a list of seven or eight items. If you ask this question of most if any music teacher, you’re likely to get such an answer. The trouble is, if you ask several music teachers, you’re likely to get several different answers. There doesn’t seem to be any clear, precise list that everyone agrees is the list of musical elements. Many answers reveal a confusion in just what an element is. To begin our discussion, it is helpful to understand that an element is not the same thing as a concept. In Webster’s dictionary, you’ll find that a concept is “an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances.” An element, on the other hand is “a constituent part; the simplest principle of a subject of study: rudiments.” Upon reading these definitions, we immediately realize that a concept is broad and general, whereas an element is narrow and specific. A concept describes the sum of the parts, and an element is one of those parts. 

Now let’s apply these definitions to music. When we hear a melody, is what we aremusic_words_large hearing a generalization from particular things we hear, or is it a specific, constituent part of the whole? One could argue that the melody is a constituent part, as is harmony, and when those two are combined, music is formed. One could also argue that the melody is a generalization made from each particular pitch and duration of which it is made. If we accept that both are true, that melody is both a concept and an element, then we must conclude that music, even at the conceptual and elemental levels, is unavoidably hierarchical. Even if this is so, it is still possible to examine the levels of the hierarchy until we reach the level at which everything is an element. If we do so, we will be left with individual notes which by themselves make little or no musical sense, but which are purely elements of music.

So what are the elements from which a melody is generalized? They are pitch, duration, timbre, dynamics, and articulation. Every musical sound that can be included in a melody must have each of these elements involved. When they are combined, they form the concept of a melody. If you have seen other lists whose mathmusicauthors claim to be naming the musical elements, you may wonder where rhythm and meter are. Rhythm is a concept. It is generalized from a sequence of durations, just as melody is generalized from a sequence of pitches and durations. Meter is also a concept, because it is generalized from patterns strong and weak beats, which are in turn generalized from sequences of durations and articulations. So meter and rhythm are concepts, not elements.

What of harmony, key, and mode? What is harmony but the consecutive sounding of pitches; therefore harmony is generalized from simultaneous instances of pitch. In a similar manner, key is generalized form groups of pitches which indicate certain chords and chord progressions which in turn establish a tonic key, such as D or B, and a mode such as major, minor or Dorian. Keys and modes, and harmony in general are all concepts generalized from the elements of pitch; therefore harmony, key and mode are concepts, not elements.

Some claim that tone color, texture, and form are elements of music. Tone color is closely related to timbre, and is indeed an element; it cannot be viewed as a generalization of other elements. Texture cannot, by our reasoning, be an element, because it is the way in which simultaneous parts are presented. Two or melodies sounded at once is one sort of texture, called polyphony, while one melody thinking musicaccompanied by chords is another sort, called homophony. When one melody is played alone, that is another texture, known as monophony. All textures are generalizations of how the various parts are related, and must then be understood as concepts.

I agree with Sylvia Constantinidis that elements of music can properly be called properties of musical sound, and that they include pitch, dynamics, tone color, and duration. In defining musical elements with precision, we can begin to eliminate the confusion over the subject of musical elements. If one learns how these four elements are utilized in music, other vocabulary, including the numerous concepts so often misnamed elements, will become readily understood. Pitch is the property of sound that is measured in vibrations per second, and is perceived to have highness, like the piccolo solo in Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, or lowness, like the opening four measures of Schubert’s symphony in B minor (unfinished), or anywhere in between these extremes of highness and lowness. Tone color is the quality of sound made by an instrument, and is described with words such as dark, bright, shrill, or warm. A musician can vary the tone color of his or her instrument to make the music more expressive, and instruments themselves have characteristic tone colors, also known as timbre. A clarinet in the mid or low register is dark or mellow, whereas the piccolo in its high register is bright or even shrill. Dynamics are simply how loud or soft the music is, and duration is simply how much time a particular note lasts, measured in beats or seconds. These are the elements of music.

A Method for Improving Rehearsal Efficiency and Enjoyment

2011Symposium_1_2One of my most often used phrases when teaching musical works to students is that a right pitch played at the wrong time is still a wrong note. While pitches, rhythm and beat are all important, it is often advantageous to teach the rhythm first, separated out from the pitches. This gives the student less to think about all at once, and gives the student the opportunity to learn music the way they learn music patterns, with pitch and rhythm separated. This is true of individuals receiving a private voice or instrument lesson, and it is also true of large ensembles. Sections in a band can play, clap, patsch or chant the rhythm they see in their part. Once each rhythm in a four-part texture has been practiced, putting just the rhythms together without instruments can be a lot fun. Assigning separate timbres to different sections can create transparency and interest. The woodwinds with one rhythm might clap, while the upper brass might patsch, as the lower brass chants. Non-pitched drum  parts are already rhythm only, so the percussionists can creatively find different timbres without playing their instrument. Choirs can have one timbre assigned to each voice part.

Very quickly, rhythm only practice will result in everyone agreeing on a tempo, and becoming more independent in maintaining the tempo. Just the physical movements and transfer of weight that occurs from rhythm only practice instantly improves rhythm and beat accuracy. Students are more free and more likely to want to move their bodies while clapping and patching than when they are playing an instrument. Singers are more likely to be aware of the rhythm and beat while clapping and patching, because they cannot rely on the rhythm of the text to help them with the rhythm. Rhythm only practice causes students to make a more substantial investment in the beat and rhythm, and the fun musical experience it creates motivates them to be even more rhythmically accurate.

After rhythm and beat are secure, the next aspect of the musical work that can be brought in is harmony. Before rehearsing a musical work, conductors analyze the score and from that analysis know what the chords are throughout the piece. Here is where keyboard skills are useful. While your students once again perform the rhythms, play the underlying chords on a keyboard. These can just be sustained if an electronic keyboard is used, or you may need to play a rhythm on the chords if an acoustic piano is used, because the chords won’t Ensembleotherwise be audibly sustained. Next, have the students sing or play their parts at a constant soft dynamic level while you play the underlying chords. If singing, students should use a neutral syllable, not the text. Hearing the chords while they play their parts with accurate rhythm and beat will aid them in tuning, and will train them to audiate chords while they play or sing their individual parts.

When a musician can hear the chords and fit his or her single note into the chord, not only does intonation improve, but music making goes up to a whole new level of enjoyment. It’s like discovering a whole level of the music you never noticed before. By now, the rhythm, beat and chords are established, and any issues with pitches can be resolved. Because the pitches are “lining up” correctly and because the students are hearing and listening for chords, errors will be more apparent to them, and they will be more capable of correcting wrong notes. You will also have an easier time detecting pitch errors, because rhythm and beat errors have been largely eliminated. The music doesn’t sound like a confusing mish-mash of sounds; even when errors are made, they occur within a much more organized and accurate performance. Finding and correcting mistakes is not as stressful or unpleasant, and progress and improvement occurs at a faster rate.

When Students Exactly Learn What We Did Not Intend To Teach

2011Symposium_1_2Teaching may not always be an exact science, but often what children learn is more exact than what we have taught. Let me explain. Suppose I want to teach children about legato using movement. Legato is a term used in both music and dance, so it is especially fitting that I use both to teach the concept. I begin by having my student imitate my motions, as I move smoothly and continuously. Most of us will naturally move slowly as we do this to bring out the smoothness and connectedness of our movements. There is the first pitfall. Legato is not a word that refers to tempo, but to articulation. It is important that we change the tempo of our motions so that the children do not learn that legato means slow. It means connected and smooth at any tempo. So I have them imitate fast legato, slow legato, and medium legato. I might say, “all of my motions do not have the same tempo, but all are called legato. What makes them legato? The smoothness and connectedness makes them legato. I can do legato fast, or I can do legato slow, or I can do legato in between. It’s all legato just the same.

Another example is found in a method for teaching whole notes. Having children toss balloons or scarfs into the air and then catching them after four beats is how these are sometimes taught. This method provides a clear visual representation of sustained movement over four beats, and is readily transferable to sustaining sound as movement through singing or the playing of a musical instrument. A child can see the object floating in the air for a time-span of four beats, and then land in her hand to complete the note. The pitfall is that because the object is doing all the work between the release (attack) and release (capture), the child does not experience the effort needed to sustain a musical pitch, and may erroneously learn that sustaining whole notes is effortless. Instead of tossing the balloon, a child can blow it into the air, and continue to blow on it for four beats. When they stop blowing on it, the balloon comes down into their hand, ready to be made air bound again at the next exertion of blowing. They can even blow on their own hand as they raise and keep it above them for four beats, and then stop blowing as they lower their hand. This retains the floating of an object (balloon or hand) for four beats, but also adds the act of breathing that is essential to sustaining a musical tone.

scarf toss

Parents and their children toss colorful scarves into the air at one of Charity Kahn’s dance and music classes.

The observant reader has also noticed the potentially confusing contradiction in terms. The start of a note is referred to as an attack, but the start of the balloon whole note can be initiated by a motion of releasing it, the term in music used for ending, not initiating a note. The teacher must be specific about he motion used to make the balloon air born, making the motion one that exerts a force on the object, setting it in motion. It is this setting in motion by pushing or “attacking” the balloon that must be the focus, and not the letting go of the balloon as it begins its flight.

Because the body is involved in producing musical sound, non-musical movement that we use to teach musical concepts must be carefully connected to the musical behavior for which we intend to prepare students. For this reason, it is sometimes useful to work in both directions. Beginning with the music and then moving to it causes students to interpret the music with movement. Beginning with the movement and then singing or playing a musical instrument to it causes students to interpret the movement with music. By doing it both ways, a clearer connection is made between music and movement. This clarity then helps gives movement a musical context, and music a movement context. Students will sometimes prefer or be better at one direction than the other. By including both, they are able to practice their strength and strengthen their weakness.

Because of how holding and playing instruments naturally restricts movement and access to space to move in, instrumental directors may want to practice movement and music without instruments as a warm-up activity, having students sing their instrument parts while moving to them. It is eye-opening to see the different parts, melody, harmony, and counterpoint, moving each according to its function in the music. Marching bands can, of course, do interpretive movement as they play, in addition to (if they are different) their assigned steps. Choirs have an easier time moving about a room while singing, and should take full advantage of this frequently in rehearsals. Interpretive movement can also develop into performance-worthy choreography that helps communicate the singers’ interpretation to an audience, and adds visual interest and variety to concerts. In short, there is everything to be gained, and little if anything to be forfeited by incorporating movement into all varieties of music making.

Jaques-Dalcroze and Rhythm Training

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed solfege exercises developed by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. Today I will examine some of his rhythm exercises. Like contemporary scholars, Jaques-Dalcroze found that rhythm and pitch are more easily taught separately than integrated together. Jaques-Dalcroze also believed that because movement, through which rhythm is expressed, is natural to humans, whereas pitch is not, it is best to begin with rhythm. The essence of Jaques-Dalcroze’s method for teaching rhythm is to gain control over the body through practice and conditioning so that it is able to work with the mind in interpreting and expressing music as movement. He wanted each student to become aware of every part of his/her body, and be able to use the full spectrum of movement to interpret music. The use of individual muscle groups would become automatic, and students would develop attention, consciousness and will power so that all exertion could be used for the “freest possible play to subconscious expression,” and to train the student to “see clearly in himself what he really is, and obtain from his powers all the advantage possible.”  Jaques-Dalcroze wanted to train students to be able to “put the completely developed faculties of the individual at the service of art and to give the latter the most subtle and complete interpreters—the human body.” This enables the student to realize a “wholly instinctive transformation of sound movements into bodily movements.”

In practice, the rhythmic portion of the method involves showing time, including tempo and beat, with arm movements, and note durations with feet and other body-part movements. For beat and tempo, the students march, accenting steps where needed, and contracting the arm muscles on metrically strong beats. As students become more advanced, they are able to suddenly stop, discontinue accenting with one or both arms or with one or both feet, substitute an arm movement for a foot movement, insert an extra accent either with the arm or foot, or do other similar things the teacher might direct.

For rhythms, individual movements are learned for specific durations, and then are sequenced into a series that 101together form a rhythm. The movements are first practiced alone, and then in groups. Students later learn to decode a rhythm the teacher plays on the piano or a drum into movements, or a rhythm they see another student do. The learning sequence is the same as that recommended by Gordon and Feierabend for aural learning, but with the student audiating physical movement from sound. Eventually, the student learns to arrest movement abruptly or slowly, to move alternately forwards or backwards, to move suddenly on cue, to lie down or stand up to precise time, and all with a minimum of muscular effort and all with continuous feeling for each time-unit of music. The student also learns to silently count time in accordance with movements he is making, resulting in a stronger feeling for the movement.

Students learn to divide the beat into various subdivisions. The teacher calls out a number, and the students divide the beat into that number of subdivisions by taking that many steps to each beat, while moving to the beat with the arms. Independence between arms and feet is further developed until the student can move to counterpoint by moving the arms to each note of the melody while taking a step to each note of the counterpoint. This is possible from a solid grasp of beat and rhythm understood as movement, and performed with the body in motion. Expressive gestures are added to indicate dynamics. Apart from rhythm and beat training, there are times when the formal movements for expressing rhythm are abandoned, and free movement is used to show what is being expressed in the music and/or the musical form. Students may practice making movements to sounds the teacher provides, or may reverse the process and practice making sounds to movements the teacher makes. Jaques-Dalcroze was adamant that all of this training must take place before a child is given formal instruction on an instrument, such as piano. Without eurhythmic training, playing will be an intellectual exercise, and the student will be unable of playing expressively because the whole body will not be involved in presenting the music. For more information on this subject, please refer to The Eurhythmics of Jaques-Dalcroze.

How Do Math and Music Mix in a Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2Most people I know, both teachers and non-teachers, musicians and non-musicians, believe that students use a lot of math concepts when making music. In the current environment created by core curriculum state standards, this belief can easily lead to the desire for music teachers to explicitly teach, or at the very least reinforce math concepts in music classes.

Music is math and science in action. When you hear a pitch, it is a certain number of vibrations per second, and it is comprised of a certain mix of harmonics that form the timbre of the pitch being heard. Double the frequency, and you hear an octave higher. Half the frequency, and you hear an octave lower. In both cases, our brains recognize the same pitch class, and treat the pitches as if they were the same. Other frequency displacements result in either consonant intervals, such as a perfect fifth or major or minor third, or dissonance intervals, such as the perfect fourth, major or minor second, or the augmented fourth/diminished fifth, the so-called tri-tone.

We also tend to hear as more pleasing and satisfying musical events that are most familiar to us. As a result, things that happen often are heard as moremathmusic pleasant than things that rarely happen. Pitches, consequent chords and pitches, metrical patterns, rhythms, and phrase lengths that occur most frequently are heard as more pleasing than those heard less frequently. We expect to hear intervals that take us further from the most frequently heard pitch to be followed by a note that brings us closer to the most frequently heard pitch. This is a statistical principle called regression to the mean.

Rhythm is frequently cited as the connection between math and music. Rhythms are patterns of durations, measured over time. The brain organizes rhythms into groups of beats, each of which occupies an identical time-span. Those beats are organized into meter, which is a pattern of strong and weak beats. All of this occurs over time, measured in a hierarchical structure of beats; hierarchical because a beat can be one note of any value. There can be a beat of one quarter note, one half note, one whole-note, two measures, four measures, and so forth. When a conductor decides to conduct a piece “in one” he or she has decided that the beat will be measured in a note value equal to one measure of music. The math at work should be evident. Ratios of durations are always present in music. A beat, however defined, is divided into a number of sub-beats, usually two or three, resulting in duple or triple meter.

It is not necessary, or even appropriate for me to teach all of the math behind the musical sounds my students hear and make. I do make them aware of duration relationships, and metrical patterns. I will even explain that the reason a whole note is called a whole note is because it is a duration that lasts a whole measure.  It is enough for them to know what they are hearing and feeling. Knowing that they are hearing and feeling 2:1 duration ratios while listening to music in simple duple meter gives them a name to remember the experience by, and an experience with which to remember the concept. That is very effective math pedagogy without my ever overtly teaching math in place of music.

Nobody makes or hears music in fractions. We may find it tempting to explain rhythm with fractions, and to give our students worksheets for them to sum note values with whole numbers and/or fractions, but this is not teaching music. It s purely math, and it perpetuates the myth that music making is a matter of counting. Let me be clear: it is not. Students naturally sense the durational hierarchy, whereas the counting in unnatural and therefore more prone to error. Let the math teachers teach fractions. They are not musical. When we bring math vocabulary into our music classrooms without diverting our attention from teaching music, we are reinforcing math concepts while preserving the integrity of our programs.

Where Is That Meter?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I attended a chamber music concert that included the first of Beethoven’s “Razumofsky” string quartets, the Op. 59, no. 1. The performance was by an ensemble made of advanced musicians from prestigious music conservatories that had gathered to attend a music festival. As the performance got under way, I quickly became unsettled. I couldn’t quite grasp the meter, even though I knew it was in common time. Eventually, the meter sorted itself out in my perception, but wondering what was causing my confusion distracted me. A day later, I have discovered that there are indeed metrical elements in this quartet that pose a challenge to those who perform it, and that this student ensemble did not always meet those challenges.

Looking at the score, It interests me to examine the opening theme, and see why the meter was so illusive.


Through enculturation, we become accustomed to perceiving meter through certain cues composers place in their music. Because meter is a pattern of strong and weak beats, the listener must have some way of knowing which beats are strong. One such cue is that usually, chord changes occur on strong beats. In the opening bars of this Op. 59, no. 1, there is a harmonic ostinato, and when it finally ends in the seventh measure and a chord change occurs it is not on the downbeat, but on beat 3 in common time. It is no coincidence that this is the very spot where my sense of meter began to falter. It was here I began to doubt I was hearing common time, and became persuaded that it was instead two-four meter. To deepen my doubt, at that exact same spot, there is the start of a relatively long duration, which is another cue for strong beats. This happens at the beginning also, but when we get to that same seventh measure, two quarter notes follow four eighth notes. In other words, both a chord change and a longer duration occur on beat three.

Yet another cue for perceiving meter is the onset of a relatively long articulation. At the very beginning, with the second violinist and violist playing the steady eighth-note ostinato, the entire burden of establishing metric structure falls to the cellist. The longest slur, one and a half measures, is in the third and fourth measures, beginning on the third beat of the third measure. Not only that, but this relatively long slur also starts on a harmonically strong pitch, the tonic, giving that third beat even more weight. As a result this third beat, like the one in the seventh measure, can easily be heard as a downbeat. Interestingly, Beethoven does not articulate the parallel occurrence of this theme the same way. When the first violin plays the same melody staring in the ninth measure, the slur has been shortened, so that the new relatively long slur does begin on a downbeat, supporting the perception of quadruple meter. So what is a player to do in order to overcome these ambiguities?

Phrasing and interpretation become essential. The first step is to be aware of the challenges present in the music. Beethoven was moving into his middle period when this quartet was composed, and here, as in the Eroica Symphony, he was experimenting with metric ambiguities. Although I will only be discussing those in the opening bars of Op. 59 no. 1, they are found throughout the work. To be effective, these devices must be set in relief against a well-established metrical structure. The cellist playing this quartet must be certain to inflect the opening phrase so that a tactus at the half-note level is established. The tactus in music is the pulse listeners perceive as the beat of reference. It is the steady beat a conductor indicates and to which a listener is apt to move. If the listener is perceiving the half note as the tactus, then the irregularities of articulation and chord changes will be perceived for what they are meant to be—essentially, syncopations. With a half note tactus, the pattern of strong and weak beats at the whole note level (each measure equaling one beat) comes off as first strong and then weak.

The relatively long notes fall on strong half-note beats, and the longest note of the theme, the whole note in the fourth measure, is rightly heard as the ending note of the phrase. With a quarter-note tactus, the dotted half note that begins the second measure takes on more prominence, and the first measure sounds like a weak measure dominated by the ensuing dotted half-note event. The quarter notes in the first measure must be handled expressively so that the dotted quarter that immediately follows them sounds like closure to the first sub-phrase, and likewise with the two quarter notes in the third measure followed by the whole note. Although this is somewhat counter-intuitive, it is an essential part of Beethoven’s rhythmic structure at this point in the work. Beethoven’s indication of “e dolce” serves not only as an expressive marking, but as a practical matter for helping to establish the meter.

Finally, the cellist must be sure to play the last note of the theme, the whole note in the eighth measure softly, even though it is completing a phrase that has up to this last note been played with a crescendo. The inception of a relatively long dynamic usually occurs on a strong beat, and the piano dynamic at measure nine is an example of this.

During the early moments of the performance I attended, these important points were not observed. The cellist played in a steady tone and dynamic that concealed the metric nuance I needed to grasp the metric structure. My experience with that performance and my subsequent reflections on it highlight the importance of analysis and interpretation to good performance preparation. Though the players competently played the pitches and durations in the score, their weakness was not paying enough attention to analysis and interpretation, and realizing their importance to a successful performance.

This is the lesson for us as we study scores and then teach repertoire to our students. Analysis and interpretation are not just academic exercises; they are integral parts in the performance process and cannot be overlooked. Remember, an audience rarely sees the score, they can only hear the music. Metrical form is more than time signatures and bar lines, for an audience see neither. Metrical form is a musical structure that must be perceived aurally, and therefore placed into the musical surface, beyond what the musicians see in their scores. Meter is not self-evident to an audience or even to the performers. It must be felt, perceived, and communicated.

What Is A Music Conductor?

2011Symposium_1_2Today I would like to explore conductors. Not the kind that drives a train, or the kind that carries electricity, though both have similarities to my topic. No, the conductor I want to explore is the kind that stands in front of a symphony orchestra, or wind ensemble, or choir. At first glance, it appears that the players or singers are doing most of the work, and the conductor is just standing there, waving his arms and putting on a show for the audience, and maybe keeping the musicians together with the same beat, and showing them when to play louder or softer. While it’s true that a conductor does all of these things, he does a lot more than this as well.

A conductor is first and foremost the music personified. He hears the music in his head, including every last detail; not just the pitches and rhythms, but every expressive nuance, every shading of audible color, every urging of the music to continue on to the very end. The most important thing a conductor does is to communicate to the ensemble all of those things with as few words as possible. An ensemble is invited into the mind and even more importantly into the imagination of the conductor, and given the opportunity to share in the music that is there, and to recreate it so that an audience can be included.

A moment ago I mentioned color as one of the concerns of a conductor. Color in music is a metaphor, drawn from visual art, and often used to describe moods or expressive qualities of music. Color is but one of the musical elements that make up the conductor’s and ultimately the orchestra’s animation of a composer’s work. I would like to use the parallel to visual art to illustrate what a conductor concerns himself with. Here is the lyric to the song “Color and Light” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy Sunday in the Park with George. Notice how the artist builds the artwork from the elements of the artform. This is exactly what the conductor must do—manage and balance all of the musical elements until they are just right to express what is in his imagination. As the artist George Seurat is working on his painting, “ A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” he sings to the constant rhythmic pattering of his pointillistic brush strokes.


More red…

And a little more red…

Blue blue blue blue

Even even…


Bumbum bum bumbumbum

Bumbum bum…

More red…

More blue…

More light!

Color and light.

There’s only color and light.

Yellow and white.

Just blue and yellow and white.

Look at the air, miss-

See whet I mean?

No, look over there, miss-

That’s done with green…

Conjoined with orange…


The conductor has complete understanding and control over the structural elements of the music, and then imagines the sounds that fill the form, balancing them, moving them, taking full advantage of every note to make the form and the expressive intent crystal clear.

How does a conductor do this? Many focus on the immediately noticeable actions of arm and baton gestures, and perhaps head and whole body movements as well. While these are important, there have been great conductors who barely moved at all. Fritz Reiner comes immediately to mind. Conducting goes beyond these things. It involves eyes that focus on those responsible for what is needed at that moment, to bring it out or shape it, or that quiet a musician bringing an element to unwanted prominence. It involves slight and subtle movements of the end of the baton, as Reiner would constantly do, or an encouraging nod of the head as Maazel would frequently offer. Maazel, in an interview for PBS News Hour, said,

“Conductors are there to conduct, not to make speeches, and they are there to give a beat that everyone can understand. No choreography, just do your job. Functional conducting. Obviously, there’s a lot more to conducting and making music than that, but these are two point that I learned as a player. When a conductor would appear on the podium who knew where the down beat is, and could communicate with clarity just what it is that he expected from each player musically and technically, it was just like heaven.”

In Maazel’s comments, we find that not only must a conductor communicate the musicality of a work, but must also be knowledgeable of the technical demands and capacities of the instruments, such as range and methods of sound production, and of the musicians themselves. A common illustration of this not occurring is when conductors insist on taking Beethoven’s fortissimo literally at the end of his ninth symphony, and applying it to the choir sopranos singing, or more often screeching, high a after high a. The great violinist Isaac Stern once said that a great conductor needed to convince the orchestra that he knew more about the music than all of them combined.

A conductor must be prepared to be the music, and to show every member of the ensemble he is conducting how to collectively become that version of the music personified. This goes far beyond baton technique, or practicing gestures in front of a mirror. It demands an all-in commitment to the music, and a willing transparency that allows the forces being led to have clear access to the aural vision standing on the podium. The conductor’s responsibility is to share the music as it is in his head, with those he is conducting. It is then the responsibility of the ensemble to share the same with an audience. Conductors are conductors of ensembles, not audiences. I think that is the essence of Maazel’s reference to choreography. Be the music to the ensemble in rehearsal, and the ensemble will be the music to the audience in performance.

Is Melody Always Music?

2011Symposium_1_2In my post on June 26, I defined melody as a sequence of tones, each of which has pitch and duration. We saw that melody did not have to have beat, rhythm, meter or tonality, just pitch and duration. I ended that post by suggesting that birdsong qualifies as melody, but questioned whether or not it qualified as music. Is it possible to have a melody that is not music? We have already defined melody. To answer the question, we also need to define music. Over many centuries, scholars have written countless volumes investigating the question of defining music, and raising the question today still can spark debate. There certainly is not room to cover the topic thoroughly in a blog post, so let me sidestep philosophical exposition, and propose some basic precepts. First, music is created. Dorrell (2004) wrote that, “Music is something that people create and something that people respond to (p. 19). In this one statement, we can find all we need for our definition of music.

First, music is created. To create something is to bring it into existence by intentionally acting upon resources out of which a thing is made. Music does not come into existence by happenstance, or by the instinctual or pre-programmed workings of organisms. Music comes into existence through creative work that creators choose to engage in. Secondly, people create music. We could extend this statement to say people purposefully create music. The word purposefully is implied in the word create, but I add it here so that the point is not lost. When people create music they do so with a purpose. That purpose is generally to express something. Every creator of music has an expressive intent, and has a response in mind that they hope their music will evoke in others. This intent is not instinctual, or even necessarily explainable with evolutionary theories. The intent with which music is created is a uniquely human one; that of sharing emotional content with other humans through pre-meditated acts of consciously self-expressive and socializing behavior. People make music not because they biologically have to but because they emotionally want to. This separates the human invention of music from the sound making of other living creatures, and is why only people can make music.

The other half of Dorrell’s definition is that music is “something people respond to.” The human response to music is complex and fascinating. Music birdsongstimulates many areas of the human brain in both of its hemispheres. It stimulates movement centers so that even when a person is not physically moving, they are experiencing virtual movement in their brains, and brain activity is indistinguishable from when physical movement occurs. Music perception takes place in Broca’s region, exactly where language perception is perceived. Sounds are organized in the brain into structures according to Gestalt principles, which were theorized for visual perception. Researchers have observed many similarities between visual and aural perception. Once so organized, music becomes emotionally meaningful, evoking or recalling emotions that can run the gamut of human feeling, ranging from fear, to love, sadness to outright laughter.

Recalling our birdsong, if we hear a bird singing, and have an emotional reaction to it, it is because of our human capacity for responding to music, and our associations to human-created music that we so react. The bird does not sing with human-like expressive intent. We humans impose an expressive response on what the bird does instinctively for non-emotional purposes. We must therefore conclude that melody does not have to be music. There are examples in nature, such as birdsong, of melodies which are not music, because they are neither humanly created, nor responded to by other birds in a human-like way. Music is a purely human invention, and stands as one of our greatest achievements.

Beginning next week, and continuing through August, I will be posting three times per week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Please drop in on those days throughout the summer.


Dorrell, P. (2004). What Is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery. Accessed July 3, 2014 at