Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Musicians Have Several Words for Time

Sorry I didn't get anything posted yesterday--just too busy!

You know that old folk-tale that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow? Turns out that isn't actually true. I grew up in northern Canada and while we certainly dealt with a lot of different kinds of snow, ice, sleet, frost and related phenomena, we still only had a few words. Which turned out to be sufficient.

I don't know enough about the other time-arts like theater and film, but I do know that in music, we have a lot of words for time. Or as it is often put: "timing".
  • Time: in music the only time we use the word "time" or "timing" is in calculating the duration of a piece of music. This is the length of a track on a CD in minutes and seconds.
  • Tempo: is the word that describes the pace of a piece of music as fast or slow. We actually have a whole bunch of words in different languages that specifically identify a particular pace or tempo. Allegro is a fairly quick tempo and adagio a slow one.
  • Beat or Pulse: this is what you follow when you tap your foot or bob your head to a piece of music. If you want to be fancy, you could also call this the tactus.
  • Meter: In nearly all music, beats are grouped into packages. When written down, these packages are defined by barlines and at the beginning of the score you are told what is in the packages with a time signature. The time signature tells you the meter, such as 3/4 or 9/8. The 3/4 signature says that there are three beats in a bar and each beat is written as a quarter note. 9/8 is a bit more complicated because each beat is a dotted quarter note and there are three of them in the bar. When you have this kind of thing it is called a "compound" meter.
  • Rhythm: is the pattern of notes of different durations that make up the actual melody and accompaniment of the music.
These are the basic words that describe "time" in music. But there are host of other ones that tell the performer to slow down (ritardando, rallentando, allargando) or speed up (accelerando, stringendo) or to modify in some other way the basic pace. Wikipedia has an article on tempo words that lists a lot of examples.

We also use numbers to precisely define an exact tempo and some composers use only that. This is why you may see a track on an album listed as a musical note equals 80 or another number. This means that the note is the pulse and there are X number of them in a minute. In an odd sort of way, that is the "name" of that particular movement. Otherwise it would be allegro or some other tempo word. Interestingly, there seems to be a trend in composers in recent decades to name their pieces with something evocative. So Esa-Pekka Salonen, if he is not writing a concerto, might call a piece Nyx after the Greek goddess of night. Debussy was one of the first to make a practice of this with his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and other pieces. But the tradition of calling a piece "Symphony No. 1" and listing the movements by their tempos still continues with some genres. If Debussy had followed that practice I suppose he might have titled his piece just Très modéré as that is the tempo word at the beginning of thPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. But the title is definitely better!

Let's listen to that one to end:


Shantanu said...

Sometimes, you feel music is none of those technical things but something more mystical. Of course, that's not true - it is just how we experience the music. It's like seeing the same thing with two completely different perspectives. One is seeing it as craft, the other as magic.

One lets you appreciate it, the other lets you be owned by it. Well, I'll stop talking and do what I came to do:

listen to this -

Happy writing!

Bryan Townsend said...

Music is always much more than these technical things. But these technical terms are the only precise way to talk about music. The music critic (and playwright) George Bernard Shaw used to refer to this kind of technical talk as the "Mesopotamian Manner" and disdained it. But talk about music that entirely avoids technical terms, the kind we find in the mass media, always ends up being just metaphors.

But you can always just listen to the music and be owned by it!

Rickard Dahl said...

One thing that confuses me are compound time signatures. Lets say we have 9/8. I understood/learnt that it means it has 9 beats where a beat is an eight rather than 3 dotted quarter beats as you say here. Plus I learnt that the beat pattern goes SwwMwwMww where S=strong, M=medium and w=weak. That's at least what Lypur ( teaches in his music theory series.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Hi Rickard,

You're not wrong and I guess it often comes down to tempo and how that affects how you 'feel' the meter.

If you have a 9/8 meter in a slowish tempo then you can distinctly feel the accents as you say and the beat/pulse and meter are aligned. Take 9/8 in a quick tempo and even though the meter is still the same, you will start to feel the motion in 3 beats to the bar as the smaller subdivisions become harder to perceive. Take it faster again and you might start feeling it in 1 beat to the bar. This is the kind of thing that Beethoven does a lot...The Scherzo in the 9th symphony is beautiful example of manipulating how the beat is felt but always using the same underlying meter.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathaniel has it right. I think that you can usually distinguish the meter just by listening, even when it is 6/8 or 9/8. There are not six and nine beats, but two and three. But there is no audible difference between these meters and 2/4 or 3/4 with triplets. In the Middle Ages, they had a way of notating rhythms that, while more complex and perhaps harder to read than ours, was better in some ways. Any meter had two options at the level of subdivision of the beat: perfect (in 3) and imperfect (in 2). Thus, 2/4 would be termed imperfect with imperfect (two beats divided in two), while 6/8 would be termed imperfect with perfect (two beats divided in three). Forgive me for not quoting the Latin!

Rickard Dahl said...

Thanks Nathaniel and Bryan. Another thing that confuses me is that you say there's no audible difference between lets say 6/8 and 2/4 with triplets. So lets say we have 6 eight notes in a bar of 6/8 and 6 triplet eight notes in a bar of 2/4.
In case of 6/8 the beat pattern would be SwwMww but in 2/4 time the first quarter note is a strong beat and the and the second one weak. Doesn't that mean that all the notes within the first beat are strong and all notes within the second beat are weak (assuming no extra accents or dynamic changes)? That would mean that the "beat" pattern for the 2/4 with triplets would be SSSwww rather than SwwMww like in 6/8. I hope I'm not too confusing and I hope you can clarify it (been wondering about this for a long period of time).

Bryan Townsend said...

Both the 6 eighth notes in a bar of 6/8 and the six triplet eighth notes in a bar of 2/4 with triplets would be played the same way: Sww Mww. No, the subdivisions of a beat do not take on the attributes of the beat. There are two levels: the level of the quarter or dotted quarter and the level of the subdivision. Each level is independent to some degree. These things can get quite tricky to discuss in print, but are very easy to demonstrate on an instrument or by clapping.