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.

A Variety of Music Speed Types

2011 Symposium2

It seems simple enough; when music gets faster, we call it an accelerando. Orchestral musicians know they have to watch the conductor, and conductors know they have to give an increasingly faster beat to create the accelerando. As far as it goes, this is all correct. But increasing the beat is not the only way composers and performers create increases in speed. It is the only way they create increases in tempo. But are they the same?

Consider the beginning of the fourth movement of Dvorak’s symphony no. 9, “From the New World.”


The tempo is constant throughout, but the speed of the music clearly increases. This increase in speed is achieved entirely through rhythmic means. The motif of an ascending semi-tone (half step) is written with a longer duration on the first note of the interval, and is followed initially by two beats of rest, thereby spacing out the second occurrence from the first. After one repetition, the duration of the first note is reduced by half a beat, and the rest between occurrences is also reduced, from two beats to just half of one beat. By the fourth measure, the first note of the interval is down to only half a beat, and the rest in between is down to one-quarter of a beat. In each case, the unit of the beat is the quarter note. By composing the rhythms this way, Dvorak has written an accelerando without increasing the tempo; therefore, accelerando and increase in tempo are not synonymous.

Apart from changes in speed, rhythm is also frequently used to present the same melodic material at the same tempo but at different speeds. Brahms was particularly fond of doing this. For example, in the fourth movement of the A Major Piano Quartet.27, measure 467, the accented material that is heard throughout the movement is played in the violin and viola in its original form, while in the piano, the pianist’s left hand plays it half as fast due to elongation, but at the same tempo.


From these examples, we can see that relying on tempo to define how fast or slow a piece of music goes is insufficient. Music with an extremely slow tempo may go quite quickly, as with the fast moving string parts playing sixteenth notes that accompany the slow moving  theme written mainly in whole note and half notes in alla breve in the final section of Wagner’s Prelude to Tannhauser. To accurately define the speed of music, we must consider both tempo and rhythm. Music that is perceived as fast has notes that move at a relatively high rate per second, regardless of how they are notated. This can be achieve with a combination of a fast tempo and note duration equal to or divisions of the beat, or with a slow tempo and note durations that are further divisions of the beat. Conversely, music that is perceived as slow can be achieved with a combination of a slow tempo and note durations equal to or elongations of the beat, or with a fast tempo and note durations that are further elongations of the beat.

In either of these cases, a rhythmic hierarchy is likely to be established. Music written primarily with divisions of the beat is likely to be perceived with a beat unit of a longer duration in order to keep the tempo manageably slow, while music that is written primarily with elongations of the beat is likely to be perceived with a beat unit of shorter durations, what musicians call subdivisions, in order to keep the tempo manageably fast, because both excessively fast and excessively slow tempos are difficult to comprehend and cognitively maintain. This is why designating a unit of beat is so important. It makes a tremendous difference if the beat is equal to a half note or a quarter note or an eighth note. The difference from one to the other in each case is halving the tempo.

From the listener’s perspective, the tempo at which music is moving is going to depend to Picture1a large degree on what beat unit he or she perceives, while we could expect the speed of the music, because it is measured in time and not beats, will be more reliable and consistent from on listener to another. An example of this is the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. A person (or conductor) who perceives the beat in quarter notes is going to find the music has a fast tempo; it has both a fast (quarter note) beat, and mostly durations that are divisions of that already fast tempo beat. A listener (or conductor) who perceives the beat in half notes is going to find the music has a moderate tempo and a fast speed; it has a moderate (half note) tempo, and mostly durations that are further divisions of that beat. The speed is still fast because the notes are moving at the same rate per second, and are divisions of divisions of the  half note beat.While rare in practice, it is even possible to perceive the music with a whole note beat, giving the music a slow tempo but still fast speed. Listening to, conducting, or performing music with a slow tempo beat is valuable because it reveals rhythmic structure at a deeper level, focusing our perceived organization of the music over longer time spans compared to zeroing in on beats that occur over shorter time spans of music. For musicians, it is useful to be flexible in this matter so that listening comprehension is enhanced, and difficulties adjusting to conductors who use a different tempo beat than the musician is used to are minimized.

I mentioned earlier that tempo is measured in beats, while speed is measured in time. This statement needs some tightening up, because tempo itself is a kind of speed, and tempo is typically defined in units of beats per minute, as revealed in tempo markings and metronome usage. The distinction between beat and speed is necessary, as we have seen, because they can go in opposite directions. Even so, ultimately both are defined by time. This being so, the speed at which music moves must be defined entirely by time, and specifically by the number of musical events, whether they are beats, elongations of the beat, or divisions of the beat, that occur per unit of time. It is useful to define beats in units of occurrences per minute, because that is the established convention, and because beats are slow enough, even at fast tempos, to be so defined. Divisions of the beat, on the other hand, are more conveniently defined in units of occurrences per second. This is useful because knowing only the tempo does not give an accurate description of the speed.


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.

Rhythm, Beat, and Groove: What’s the Difference?

2011Symposium_1_2It all seems simple in the early grades. Beat is the steady pulse of the music, and rhythm is the changing durations of what is being sung or played. Using movement, students learn the difference between beat and rhythm by walking the beat while clapping the rhythm. Because they are not doing the same thing with their feet and hands, the point that they are not the same is easily made. The issue becomes more complicated when the students get older. Around age eleven, they develop their own musical preferences, and become more attached to the music of popular culture. With this change in how they relate to music and relate music to their peers, students begin talking about the beat in a different way. They use the word to describe the overall rhythmic affect on them that the music has; an understanding more accurately described as groove. Groove is the combined affect of beat and rhythm on the body; it is a word that describes how our body responds to music with movement. Labeling groove as beat glosses over rhythmic structure of music, making it almost certain that understandings of its component parts, that is rhythm, beat and meter, will be overlooked.

As music teachers, we are up against a misunderstanding brought about by common yet misleading usage of the thinking musicword beat. Part of the solution is to be sure our teaching goes beyond vocabulary, and includes application and experience. Defining beat as the steady pulse of the music is only engaging the intellect in learning the concept–it does not develop the deeper understanding that comes from experiencing the beat while being aware of what is being experienced, and manipulating the beat with creative and interpretive actions, which provides relevance and even deeper understanding. Here is how this could play out in a classroom. First, the teacher has taught the students what beat, rhythm and groove are, so that they can define each. This is the intellectual part of learning a concept, and must come first. Then the students might hear the music teacher play a repeated rhythm pattern–one which is easily recognized by the students. Then the teacher plays the same repeated rhythm pattern, but at a different tempo, and asks the students of the three elements, beat, rhythm, and groove, which one or ones have changed? The activity is then repeated, but with the students playing the pattern on body percussion or rhythm instruments. When ever either beat or rhythm changes, groove will be affected. Groove should not be confused with style. Funk is a style, not a groove. The groove of funk is the affect of the characteristic rhythms and beat of the funk style. That affect will always change when either rhythm or beat is changed, so groove can change even when style does not.

When a student says that a song has a beat that they like, it most likely is the groove they are referring to. Redirecting the conversation to groove opens up the opportunity to discover what combination of rhythm and beat created the groove that the student likes, and presents creative opportunities for students to explore tinkering with the rhythm and beat separately to alter the groove. Students tend to be deeply entrenched in a small number of rhythms that repeatedly occur in the music they listen to, so creating new rhythms that result in the same or similar groove helps widen their appreciation of music, and moves them from being music consumers to music creators, an important step in becoming educated musically. Students must come to understand that songwriters and composers have beat, rhythm and beat at their disposal to manipulate however they choose, and that the results of those creative decisions is a particular groove and/or style, and is very much related to the music creator’s expressive intent.

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.

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.