Rhythm and Meter
As stated in the introduction, many of
the six fundamental parts of music
are intertwined. Of all the fundamentals, rhythm is probably the most
difficult to separate out, since it is an inseparable part of melody, harmony
Simply put, rhythm is the way that tones
(or notes, or pitches) are
organized through time. Because it seems that most people (both
musicians and music lovers) think of the tones as being higher up in the
musical hierarchy than rhythm, it is easy overlook the crucial role that
rhythm plays in giving a melody its essential character.
For example, think of the famous opening
of the first movement of
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: three short notes and a long note.
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This rhythm pervades the entire movement
and gives the music its
agitated, struggling, and striving qualities. Think of how Beethoven could
have written this music differently by using the same notes with a different
rhythm. Try to imagine that instead of three short notes followed by a long
note, for example, Beethoven had written a long note followed by three
short notes. Written that way, the music would trip along, possibly
sounding like some kind of dance, and completely transforming the
character of the work.
Composers often purposefully "transform"
their melodies during the
progression of a work. One of the most common ways of accomplishing
this is to keep the pitches (tones) the same, while altering the rhythm. In
this way, the shape of the melody remains the same, but the character of
the melody changes.
Returning to another famous Beethoven example,
the final movement of
the Ninth Symphony features many variations on the main hymn-like
melody (discussed in the section on melody). Here are two examples
from this movement. The first is a straightforward setting of the melody:
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Later on in this movement, Beethoven transforms
the hymn into a joyous
dance. Note that the pitches of the melody are essentially the same, it is
the rhythm that has changed, drastically changing the character of the
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In some music, particularly by composers
of the 20th
century , rhythm
plays a more easily obvious role. One of the most revolutionary aspects
of Igor Stravinsky's work was that he put rhythm in the forefront of his
music. Stravinsky's powerful ballet, the Rite of Spring (1913) seems to be
propelled by its insistent, pounding rhythms. Listen to this example from
the first part of the ballet. Note that melody seems to play a much smaller
role than either rhythm or harmony:
Rite of Spring
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Now, listen to this excerpt from Mars,
the first movement of Gustav
Holst's The Planets. Note that underneath the ominous melodies, there is
an underlying rhythm that increases the grim, unrelenting character of the
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As in the Rite of Spring, repetition plays
a significant role. Both of these
excerpts featured lots of repetition of the same tone or pitch, which serves
to focus the ear's attention on the rhythm.
The following questions may help you to
separate rhythm from the other
related fundamentals while you're listening.
In general, are the rhythms simple or complex?
Does rhythm seem to play
a primary or secondary role in the music? This can be a difficult question
to answer. Clearly, in the Rite of Spring and in example from The Planets,
rhythm is of primary importance. But what about in the Beethoven
examples? Is rhythm more important in the excerpt from the first
movement of the Fifth Symphony, than it is in the examples from the
Finale of the Ninth Symphony? Remember that there are no "correct"
answers here, the goal is to listen more actively.
The most important question is always:
how does the rhythm affect the
character of the music?
Parts of a Note
Direction of Stem Flags
The direction of the stem is determined by the distance of the note head from the middle line on the staff. When
is ias above the middle line, the stem is pointed downward; when below the middle line, the direction is upward - as
in Figure 1.
The direction of the stem may be written upward or downward when the note head is on the middle line. The
choice of directin depends on the location of the preceding and succeeding notes - as in Figures 2 and 3.
Figures 2 and 3 a;so show the following: (1) Then the stem is up, it is connected to the right side of the note head;
when down, it is connected to the left side. (2) The flag is always attached to the right side of the stem,
Values and Symbols
Tie and Dot
Full or fractional values
can be combined into almost limitless patterns with the tie and dot. The
combines the values they connect into one duration. For example:
The binary division (or addition) of note values does not contain the possibility for representing three-
forths of a value with a single symbol. This is achieved by using the dot. The dot placed after any not value (or rest)
is equal to half of the value it follows - making it equal to three-fourths of a larger value. For example:
Most meter signatures are
described by stating the type of division and subdivision (Simple or Compound)
and the number of beats per measure (2-Duple, 3-Triple, 4-Quadruple, 5-Quintuple).
Use of Beams
In Instrumental notation, the flags are often replaced by beams - with the number of beams always equal
to the number of flags. Beams are used to group into one "picture" all the possible rhythmic combinations of the divisions an subdivisions of one beat.
When notating rhythmic combinations with beams, the number of beats per measure must be expressed clearly.
While the rhythmic pattern in figure 4 is playable, the number of beats per measure is obscured by the awkward notation.
The rhythmic pattern in figure 5 is exactly the same as figure 4 and more clearly expresses the intended organization of the measure into three beats.
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