music theory online : rhythmic varietylesson 20
Dr. Brian Blood

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... musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognise and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.
Plato (c.427-327 BC) Greek philosopher - from Book 3 of The Republic

Rhythmic Modes :: Anacrusis :: Syncopation :: Dotting & Double Dotting :: Égal & Inégal :: Hemiola, Hemiolia or Cross Rhythm
Swing :: Rhythm Syllables

Important: To see and hear our 'live' music examples you will need to install the free Scorch plug-in for PC and MAC systems.

Rhythmic Modes :: top

Key word:
rhythmic modes

Rhythmic Modes

There is good evidence that the brain processes rhythm independently of sequences of different pitches. Musicophilia by Jonathan Sacks details observations that demonstrate how in certain neurological conditions there a loss of perception of one (for example, rhythm) while the other (for example, tonal recognition) is unimpared. The Cambridge-based neuroscientist Jessica Grahn has been studying how the brain responds to various sequences of beats; in other words, to different rhythms.

Poetic rhythm is defined either in terms of the relative positions of unaccented and accented syllables (based on stress, i.e. how loud), or by the relative positions of short and long syllables (based on quantity, i.e. how much time it takes to pronounce it).

the eight basic rhythmic groupings are:
namebased on stress (accented or unaccented)based on quantity (long or short)
iambunaccented :: accentedshort :: long
anapestunaccented :: unaccented :: accentedshort :: short :: long
trocheeaccented :: unaccentedlong :: short
dactylaccented :: unaccented :: unaccentedlong :: short :: short
amphibrachunaccented :: accented :: unaccentedshort :: long :: short
pyrrhunaccented :: unaccentedshort :: short
tribrachunaccented :: unaccented :: unaccentedshort :: short :: short
spondeeaccented :: accentedlong :: long

Defining rhythmic patterns in these terms is central to the performance of measured sections of Notre Dame organum, polyphonic conductus and late twelfth- and thirteenth-century motet. They were set out in the text De mensurabili musica (about 1240) which was extensively edited by the most famous music theorist of the thirteenth century, Johannes de Garlandia. It is this treatise that defined and most completely elucidated these modes.

the standard rhythmic patterns, all employing triple meter, are listed below:
rhythmic mode 1trochaic (2 1)2 1 | 2 1 | 2 1 | and so on
rhythmic mode 2iambic (1 2)1 2 | 1 2 | 1 2 | and so on
rhythmic mode 3dactylic (3 | 1 2)3 | 1 2 | 3 | 1 2 | and so on
rhythmic mode 4anapestic (1 2 | 3)1 2 | 3 | 1 2 | 3 | and so on
rhythmic mode 5spondaic (3 | 3)3 | 3 | 3 | and so on
rhythmic mode 6tribrachic (1 1 1)1 1 1 | 1 1 1 | 1 1 1 | and so on

[note: the length is given in unit lengths 3 (long), 2 (medium) and 1 (short) with | indicating how the beats are grouped]

Rythmic modes were considered obsolete by the time of the Ars Nova movement in the fourteenth century

Anacrusis :: top

Key words:


Taken from poetry, the term anacrusis refers to one or two unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line that are unnecessary to the meter. In music, this is represented by a short or 'incomplete' bar at the beginning of a piece generally, but not always, matched by a short 'incomplete' bar at the end so that the total number of beats in the first and last incomplete bars equals a full bar. We give an example below - the first sounding beat is the weakest in a three beat bar, i.e. the third, while the second beat of the piece is the first beat in the first full bar and is strong. Anacrusis is also called 'pick-up' or 'up-beat'.


Syncopation :: top

Key words:
off the beat


The position of notes in a bar show their relative rhythmic strengths. However, occasionally, the rhythmic pattern wanted does not fit the rhythmic pattern shown by the barring. One says that the rhythm is 'off the beat' or syncopated. Examples of this are common in popular music including jazz, but it does occur in music of all ages. We have given a good example of syncopation below. Note, in particular, the theme played by pianist's right hand (the upper line of the piano part). The theme is 'off the beat' for much of the time, i.e. it is syncopated. The 'effect' is notated using ties. A crucial feature of syncopation is that there should be a strong sense of the beat 'off which' the theme is being played. This is provided by the percussion and bass guitar lines. There is a second type of syncopation, where the strong beat is replaced by a silence.

Dotting & Double Dotting :: top

Key words:
French overture

Dotting & Double Dotting

Throughout this Music Theory Online method we have stressed the way in which musical notation should be regarded as a more or less faithful way of recording details of live performance (e.g. high baroque French music, much of it written by composers who were themselves great performers) or as providing a guide to a performer who might wish to perform the work in the future. Whether performers today want to consider themselves bound artistically by this guidance is a matter for them for, as T. S. Eliot points out, "each generation, like each individual, brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demands upon art, and has its own uses for art."

In any situation one starts with the score and applies 'rules' to turn a set of 'mechanical' instructions into a living performance. For example, 'what works for the audience' might be a good rule if the performer wants to make a living from playing music to a paying public.

We know, from the writings of early musicians, that the marks on the page are not sufficient to tell us how the music was played at the time it was written. Couperin tells us 'we write differently from what we play'. In effect, we have to find out the real meaning behind each of the instructions we see on the page. The meaning may not be the same as that behind the same mark written several centuries later. This is why people study contemporaneous texts and related evidence. Of course, what they examine are 'historical accidents', material lucky enough to survive to the present day. We do not know that these sources are reliable, that they are accurate, that, in the case of opinions, they were widely held views and not just an individual's prejudices. This is why we try to examine as many as we can, to compare and contrast, to get a feel for the 'width' or 'breadth' of opinion at the time. To take the position that all is uncertainty and prejudice, does not help us decide what we might do with the music we have in front of us, particularly if we believe that music is a medium through which a composer speaks to an audience. If we are interested in what the composer meant by what he wrote, and in communicating something of it to an audience, we are forced to take general evidence complete with its uncertainties and turn it into the specific occasion, the performance itself. To say that the composer speaks to the audience through his music, as Arnold Dolmetsch suggested, may be taking things rather too far, but we have to recognise that we are playing a particular piece by a particular composer and that as the music informs and inspires us, the performers, so we should be informing and inspiring the audience that listens to us.

There is an even more fundamental problem. Even if we had perfect evidence about eighteenth-century performance practice, would this be relevent to a performance we were going to give next week? Can we really give anything but 'modern' performances?

Our position is that we have to understand the intentions of the composer the best way we can even though we may not actually follow them. This is because the intentions of the composer interest us, not because they bind us. If some of these intentions can be discovered only by understanding original instruments then we should examine and play upon them.

Dotting and double dotting is an example where exactly what is written is not exactly what is played. The interposition of a silence between a dotted note and its shorter companion (see our example below) and the delaying of the shorter note is a feature of what we now call 'French Overture' style. Its effect is to strengthen the strong beats in the bar. This is not only applied to the music of French composers - the French style travelled across Europe and composers made it part of their musical palette. Later, by the time we move towards Mozart, the silence is removed and the movement is altogether more graceful and less 'jerky'. Prior to the eighteenth century, its use is open to question.


Égal & inégal :: top

Key words:

Égal & inégal

Inégal (French, literally 'uneven') is used to give a slow melodic line forward impetus, particularly French music from the mid 16th- to the late 18th-centuries; but there is evidence too, in the writings of Michel Corette (L'école d'Orphée, Paris, 1738), of it being found in Italian music of the same period. Pairs of notes of identical time duration, for example, two quavers (eighth notes), are played as though their time values were unequal. This is explicit where the composer uses the marking pointé, but such markings are rare and the use of notes inégal and the appropriate degree of inequality are left to the discretion (and taste) of the performer.

For example, two quavers (eighth notes) in 2/4 might be played as though they were a crotchet (quarter note) followed by a quaver (eighth note) in 6/8. Very rarely, the reverse, a kind of Scotch snap or Lombardic rhythm, might be more appropriate.

This convention of rhythmic inequality is associated mainly with slow movements, and should apply only to the notes that divide the main pulse or beat in two. Thus, where, because of the tempo, the pulse of a 3/4 slow movement is measured in crotchets (quarter notes), it is the quavers (eighth notes) that are played inégal, providing certain other requirements are met. If the tempo is much slower, the quavers (eighth notes) may better give the pulse, in which case it will be semiquavers (sixteenth notes) that are played inégal. There are exceptions. For example, if the composer has placed staccato dots over the pair of notes, they must be played égal, that is equally. There is good evidence too, that passages of an arpeggiated nature, whose purpose is harmonic rather than melodic, are also to be played evenly.

Notes inégal are also met when composers wrote their music using simple time (for example, 3/4), when what they actually wanted was compound time (for example, 9/8), what today is called 'swing'. We illustrate this in the example below.

A number of commentators strongly disagree with the understanding of contemporary practice we have outlined above. Those wishing to read Arnold Dolmetsch's original analysis should refer to chapter three in his book The Interpretation of the Music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (available from Dover or from - or to similar but more extensive material in Robert Donington's book Early Music where much of the evidence is set out including direct quotations from original sources. One point that is worth mentioning is that rhythmic inequality was not always exactly as set out above and that two quavers differently weighted are also inégal even when the notes are of identical length. We accept that there can be greater and lesser differences in length than we have described above, but we offer this description as a specific example where inégal could be employed.

Hemiola, Hemiolia or Cross-rhythm :: top

Key words:

Hemiola, Hemiolia or Cross-rhythm

When, in music, two lines having respectively 2 and 3 beats in a bar overlay one another, as in the example below, the terms hemiola, hemiolia or cross-rhythm may be employed to describe it.

The term hemiola (from the Greek, 'one-and-a-half') may also be used where, in a triple time rhythm, two bars are arranged to have three beats where the middle beat is tied across the bar-line; so, for example, in a piece in 3/4, two bars are made up of three minims (half-notes).

In early music, this term hemiola meant the ratio of 3:2, employed musically in two senses: the ratio of the perfect fifth, whose musical value is 3:2, and the rhythmic relation of three notes in the time of two, i.e. the triplet. In the Baroque era hemiola was used in dance music in the sense that it denoted the articulation of two measures of triple meter as if they were three measures of duple meter, a rhythmic device much used in cadential progressions. In later music, especially Viennese waltzes, the use of hemiola was common, in the sense of playing duplets in one part of the music, over which another part of the music is playing triplets.

To summarise the terminology:


Swing :: top

Key word:


What we have said above about equality and inequality can be applied to much contemporary popular music. The most common rhythm, called the 'eight-note triplet shuffle', is found in blues, jazz and swing music. It is sometimes called 'rolled 8ths'. We illustrate it below.

In music made up of a mixture of minims, crotchets, semiquavers, triplets, hemiolas and quavers, only the quavers are 'swung'. The other note values are played strictly 'in time'.

Rhythmic Syllables :: top

Key words:
rhythmic syllables
French time names
langue des durées

Rhythmic Syllables

Rhythm syllables are also called 'French time names' or, in French, langue des durées.

The French musician and teacher, Émile-Joseph Chevé (1804-1864) was one of the first to suggest that rhythm could be taught using words chosen to mimic verbally rhythmic patterns commonly found in European music. In fact, systems like this had been in practical use for hundreds, if not thousands of years in the many musical cultures of India, where it is called bol, in Japan, where it is called kuchi shoga and in Africa. Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) incorporated the Galin-Paris-Chevé system of rhythm syllables into his own music teaching method and it is in this form that we find its widest use in Europe today.

The Galin-Paris-Chevé system is named after Pierre Galin [Exposition d'une Nouvelle méthode (1818)] together with Émile-Joseph Chevé (1804-1864), his wife Nanine Paris and her brother Aimé Paris (1798-1866) [E. Chevé (M. & Mme) Méthode élémentaire d'harmonie (1846); E. Chevé (M. & Mme) Exercices élémentaires de lecture musicale à l'usage des écoles primaires (1860); E. Chevé (Mme Nanine Paris) Méthode élémentaire de musique vocale (1864)]

Rhythm syllables are mnemonics rather than just 'names'. They are designed to be articulated rather than read from the page. The matching of the syllabic structure of the 'name' to its associated musical rhythm offers the teacher a way of freeing the study of rhythm from that of pitch. By chanting the rhythm syllables, the student will internalise the rhythm of the piece being studied.

Rhythm syllables are not meant to replace standard note names, crotchet , eighth note, etc. The standard names we give the notes do not, themselves, offer any expectation as to their duration or rhythm, something that rhythm syllables do.

durationmodern rhythm namesFrench time names of Aimé Paris
aa = ah; é = eh; i = short i (as in tip)
simple time
crotchet (quarter note)tataa (sound: tah)
2 quavers (2 eight notes)ti-tita-té (sound: ta-teh)
4 semiquavers (4 sixteenth notes)tika-tikatafa-téfé (sound: ta-fa-teh-feh)
3 triplet quavers (3 triplet eight notes)tre-o-la 
quaver + 2 semiquavers (eight note + 2 sixteenth notes)ti-tikata-téfé (sound: ta-teh-feh)
2 semiquvers + quaver (2 sixteenth notes + an eighth note)tika-titafa-té (sound: ta-fa-teh)
semiquaver + quaver + semiquaver (sixteenth note + eighth note + sixteenth note)syn-co-pa 
semiquaver + dotted quaver (sixteenth note + dotted eighth note) tafa-é (sound: ta-fa-eh)
semibreve (whole note) taa aa aa aa (sound: tah-ah-ah-ah)
minim (half note)tootaa aa (sound: tah-ah)
dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note)tum 
dotted crotchet + quaver (dotted quarter note + eighth note)taam-titaa até (sound: tah-ateh)
dotted quaver + semiquaver (dotted eighth note + sixteenth note)tim-kata-éfé (sound: ta-ehfeh)
compound time
3 quavers (3 eighth notes)ti-ti-tita-té-ti (sound: tah-teh-ti)
crotchet + quaver (quarter note + eighth note)ta-ti 
quaver + 2 semiquavers + quaver (eighth note + 2 sixteenth notes + eighth note)ti tika ti 
4 semiquavers + quaver (4 sixteenth notes + eighth note)ti-ka-ti-ka ti 
6 semiquavers (6 sixteenth notes) tafa-téfé-tifi (sound: tafa-tehfeh-tifi)
dotted minim (dotten half note)toomtaa aa aa (sound: tah-ah-ah)


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