Hierarchy in Rhythmic Structure: Meter, Beat and Duration


For many years, I have been bothered by the usual definition of a time signature. In common time, it is often taught that the top number refers to the number of beats in each measure, and the bottom number refers to the kind of note that gets one beat. So a time signature of four-four supposedly means that there are four beats in each measure, and that a quarter (4th) note gets one beat. But this explanation simply isn’t true all of the time. For example, take the opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World).

Opening of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

The time signature in this example, by the just stated reasoning, ought to be telling us that there are two beats in each measure and that a quarter note gets one beat. Although a case can be made for this from the notation, no one hears the music this way, and conductors don’t conduct it this way. We hear, and they conduct four beats to the measure, with the eighth note as the unit of measurement. Time signatures do not necessarily correspond to what he music actually sounds like, and are to some extent arbitrary. We don’t really hear a time signature like we hear notes or silences during rests.

Time signatures, like beats, have no sound, and so cannot be heard. They can only be perceived out of the structural organization we make from the sounds we do hear. The reoccurrences of salient notes evenly spaced over time provides the information we need to ascertain a beat from the music to which we listen. When we are listening to music, we are in fact hearing several beats at once. We are hearing the “conductor’s” beat, called the ictus, and we are also hearing the beat of evenly spaced strong beats that begin each metrical unit, the evenly spaced strong beats that begin every other metrical unit, which gives us the sense of strong measure-weak measure, and evenly spaced strong beats that begin consecutive phrases, which may be four or eight metrical units apart. In the other directions, we are at the same time hearing beats that are divisions of the ictus, such as the sixteenth note beat in the example above. These several beats are understood in a hierarchy of beats. The first beat of a metrical unit is understood as a strong beat because it is strong at all levels simultaneously. The third beat of a measure in common time is heard as stronger than the second, because the former is a strong beat on more levels. This principle can be seen in the following figure, where the dots under the music represent beats at the levels of eighth, quarter, half, and whole note.

The metrical hierarchy demonstrated

The metrical hierarchy demonstrated

In the process of a listener making sense of this melody, all four of the beat levels shown are present in his or her perception of the music, yet only one of them will be adapted as the ictus. It may well be that the preferred ictus in this case will be the half note level, in spite of the time signature that suggests otherwise. The feeling of syncopation in the tied quarter notes is easily overlooked if the quarter note is taken as the ictus. Teachers and students should latch on to the ictus that is most naturally perceived from listening.

Durations placed onto the grid of this hierarchy create patterns that we commonly refer to as rhythm. When a rhythm rubs up “against the grain” of the beat hierarchy, things like elisions and syncopations result, creating rhythmic tension and capturing the listener’s imagination. I have found that while my brain has been processing this hierarchy all along, when I consciously attend to it while listening or performing music, my enjoyment and interest in the music increases. I also have found music easier to perform and understand when I realize that music can be understood with any of several incti. Try shifting form quarter note beats, to half note beats, to eighth note beats to whole note beats while listening to music, and have your students shift movements to the beat in this way. It is fun and ear-opening all at once.

Syncopation, Meter, and Beat: You Really Can’t Separate Them

2011Symposium_1_2Syncopation is an interesting subject for music teachers in many countries around the world. On the one hand, right from childhood, people hear syncopated rhythms in folk and popular music styles everyday. The sound of syncopation, and the frequently used rhythm patterns that constitute syncopated rhythms are familiar, and most can quickly learn to correctly sing a song that uses syncopation. A person doesn’t have to know they are singing syncopation in order to correctly sing syncopation. People audiate these rhythm patterns once they have been learned by listening. The trick comes when people are taught that what they are listening to or singing, or playing is syncopation. Once the word is introduced, and it is used to label those particular kinds of rhythm patterns, an explanation of just what syncopation is must be given.

Most music educators will agree that syncopation is present when a note that normally is metrically weak is, through accent or elongation, made metrically strong. This seems simple enough until one considers that in order for this definition to make any sense, a person needs to have an understanding of beat and meter, including the hierarchy of strong and weak beats within beats, measures, pairs of measures, phrases, and so on. As is often the case, I find that eurhythmics offers the best approach to making this rhythmic structure clear to students. Children from a very early age move to the beat of music, particularly if they have received formal music training. Children who “keep the beat with their feet” can walk to the beat of music that is played for them, whether live or recorded. Once children are doing that, theirthinking music attention can then be drawn to what they hear between their steps. Children who are hearing eighth notes and walking to quarter notes are hearing one note between their steps. They might clap eighth notes while walking to quarter notes, and become more aware of that note in between the beats. So far, everything is still pretty comfortable because all of the strong notes, the first eighth note in each pair, is on the beat, and so there is a familiar pattern of strong-weak that feels natural with the steps of walking. Strong notes always coincide with a step. But now take the rhythm of eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter rest. The strongest note, the quarter note, is now between steps, and the second step feels like a rhythmic resolution of a rhythmic dissonance that is the quarter note. The eighth note that follows, being weaker than the quarter note, feels like an anacrusis to the third step, and the fourth step strongly marks the end of the phrase, leaving the child prepared to begin the next. That strong note between steps is syncopation. Whenever a strong note between beats is heard, that is syncopation.

Other instances of syncopation can be less easily heard. For example, in common time the rhythm quarter, half, quarter is considered syncopated, but if one is using the quarter note as the tactus, the syncopated half note occurs on the second beat, not between beats. How, then can this be syncopation? The answer is that as long as the listener is tracking quarter notes as the tactus, this rhythm will not be perceived as syncopated; however, if the listener uses the half note as the tactus, then this same rhythm is felt as syncopated. Similarly, in our previous example, if eighth notes were the tactus, then the eighth, quarter, eighth note pattern would not be heard as syncopated. A note must be in a metrically weak position, that is between beats, and be given metrical strength by such methods as elongation or accent, in order to qualify as syncopation. If a rhythm is to be perceived as syncopated, the right tactus must be set up ahead of time. From this we see that syncopation is dependent not only on rhythm, but also on the beat and specifically on what note value the listener perceives as the tactus.This is why trying to teach syncopation with mnemonic syllables is always likely to fail. Mnemonic syllables relate note values to each other, but not to a tactus. Syncopa, popular with Kodaly teachers, establishes that there is a longer note value between two shorter ones, but it does not make clear what the underlying beat is. A child could just as easily count the middle note as one beat or two. Mnemonic syllables must be placed within a metrical context and an established beat to be effective. By definition, syncopation, meter, and beat cannot be separated if students are to acquire a true understanding of syncopation.