Saturday, October 28, 2017

Musical Time

That recent award, number 43 on the list of the top 100 music education blogs, reminds me that I ought to do the occasional post on, you know, music education. After the series of Stravinsky posts and a scattering of posts on aesthetics (which I will continue) the blog has strayed into some political issues. My defense of that on this determinedly non-political blog, is that when politics makes inroads into our beloved realm, we need to occasionally push back.

But today I am going to talk about the rhythmic aspect of music. Music is a "time-art" meaning that not only does it, like theater, take place in time, but even more, everything about music is about vibrations:

These vibrations take place on multiple levels. Most obviously, music tends to organize itself around a recurring pulse:

But let me back up a bit and tell you what I used to tell my students: even though music is a time-art, when we talk about the "timing" of music, that only refers to the duration of a piece. When you look at a CD cover or the second column in your iTunes playlist you see the time or timing of each piece in minutes and seconds. Time and timing are not musical terms, though. In music we have three separate terms, none of which is time or timing. The first is "pulse."

Pulse is related, of course, to your pulse and for a lot of music history the typical pulse of most pieces was not far from the range of the human pulse. We like pulse in music as it is the simplest and most compelling way of organizing time. Steve Reich has written pieces that use pulse in a very primal way:

The "trick" in that piece is that the pulse that you hear, which in the absence of any context you hear as the downbeat, actually turns out to not be the downbeat, but an upbeat. When the downbeat finally arrives, if you have been listening closely, you almost fall off your chair in surprise. This is a "metric" effect and "meter" is our second musical term. You see, in music those pulses come in packages: there are stronger ones, downbeats, and weaker ones, upbeats. There is a correspondence with the raising and the putting down of the foot in dance. The two basic kinds of meter are duple and triple. In Drumming, the whole piece is based on a simple pattern in 3/2 6/4. Here is the composer's note from the score:

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And here is the beginning of the score. As you can see, that first beat is not the downbeat:

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Those numbers at the beginning tell you the meter. The 3/2 means "each measure (or package) has three beats and each beat is notated as a half note." The alternate meter of 6/4 means that "each measure has six beats and each beat is notated as a quarter note." Why the ambiguity? Steve Reich plays with meter in his music, constantly re-interpreting how the meter can be felt.

So now we know what pulse and meter are. The third word used by musicians is "rhythm" and it is used in a couple of senses. First, it can be used as a kind of generic term referring to all the elements of music that are time-related. "Ya gotta have rhythm!" But it is used in a specific sense as well. Rhythm is the pattern of notes of different durations that we hear as the surface of the music. The rhythm of Drumming as Reich shows it in his note is "three eighth notes, eighth note rest, eighth note, eighth note rest, three eighth notes, eighth note rest, eighth note, eighth note rest." So you see why we invented notation! The rhythm is always changing (yes, and repeating as well), but the pulse and the meter are the same.

But everything in music is a kind of vibration, not just the rhythmic aspect. Each musical note or pitch is a collection of vibrations at different frequencies. You have heard the term "A = 440?" This refers to a specific pitch, the note A, one example of which vibrates 440 times per second. This creates a particular pitch, one that musicians typically use to tune to. So each note in a melody is actually a specific vibration. Harmony? Well, harmony is just different pitches as they sound together so harmony is also a collection of vibrations. Everything in music is vibrations!

Let's listen to a particularly felicitous collection of vibrations by one of those dead white guys. This is the Symphony No. 39 by Joseph Haydn in a spirited performance by The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock:

UPDATE: I replaced my original Drumming clip with a different performance that makes my point better.

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