Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fun with Hemiolas, Part 1

Two analyses of interesting and special hemiolas are coming up soon. To prepare for them, here's a general discussion of what hemiolas sound like, along with a listening experiment to try.

Grove Music Online defines the modern (post-1600) hemiola as "the articulation of two units of triple metre as if they were notated as three units of duple metre." This statement delicately steps around the question of how we hear hemiolas. If two bars of 3/4 (e.g.) are "articulated as if" they were three bars of 2/4, then do we hear them temporarily switch to 2/4? Or does "articulation" mean only that there is a rhythm suggesting 2/4 (such as three half notes), and that we notice that it could have been in 2/4--but isn't?

Neither of these possibilities seems right. When I hear a hemiola, my 2/4 "sensors" are activated; I am experiencing duple meter, not just entertaining the possibility of it. But the duple meter doesn't replace the notated triple meter; my 3/4 sensors remain active as well. The result isn't just two meters (2/4 and 3/4) superimposed, going on both at once. It is a hierarchical relationship. Here are a couple of metaphors for this relationship:

- 2/4 is the "surface" meter, and 3/4 is the "underlying" meter. (Or 2/4 is the figure, and 3/4 is the ground.)

- 2/4 is a fictional meter, a "story within the story" told by the 3/4 meter. We experience it, but we know it's not real.

The most hemiola-heavy music I know is a Broadway tune. But it's not "America" from West Side Story! It's "A Weekend in the Country," from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Here are the opening bars of the A section:


The first three measures articulate 3/4, which is actually duple meter on the eighth-note level because it groups the eighth notes in twos. (On this level 6/8 is triple meter, grouping the eighth notes in threes.)

Here's the experiment to try:

First, sing or play the tune as if the first three bars were actually in 3/4, without any quality of 6/8 in them. It helps to tap the quarter note (duple) beat as you sing:


Without the presence on some level of 6/8 meter, "-end" and "-try" fall unequivocally on the beat. This sounds clumsy and punchy. If the song's hemiola were meant to sound like this, then the song would be pretty bad! In practice, we can't actually hear the song this way, because its accompaniment is in a straight 6/8. (Unless we hear the song as polymetric, with pure 3/4 in the melody vs. pure 6/8 in the accompaniment. This seems wrong to me, for exactly the reason shown above: the melody is bad in pure 3/4.)

What about hearing the first three bars as only suggesting 3/4, without actually being in 3/4 in any sense? Try singing the tune this way. The only syllables on the beat will be "week-" and "coun-". Add a little rubato to delay "-end" and "-try", which are now unequivocally off the beat:


This also seems wrong. It lopes along slowly, uncertainly, without any forward drive.

"A Weekend in the Country" sounds best when the first three measures include both 3/4 and 6/8, with 3/4 the hemiola meter and 6/8 the "underlying" meter. "-end", "in", and "-try" then get a special lift because they are both on the beat (in 3/4) and off the beat (in 6/8). Being on the beat makes them active and strong; being off the beat keeps them light on their feet.

More precisely: As rhythmic events, "-end", "in", and "-try" are on the beat of the 3/4 hemiola meter. But as metric events in the hemiola meter (second beats in 3/4), "-end", "in", and "-try" are off the beat of the underlying 6/8 meter.
Instead of the usual two-level relationship between rhythm and meter:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

a hemiola creates a three-level structure:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Hemiola metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.) are defined as
- Underlying metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

Are rhythmic events in a hemiola also defined as underlying metric events, skipping over the hemiola-meter level? We'll find out in an upcoming analysis.

To close, a few notes on "America":

Unlike the hemiolas in "A Weekend in the Country," the hemiolas in "America" are supposed to be punchy and percussive. They occur in the melody and the accompaniment together. Should we hear them as genuinely changing the meter? I say no. If you try changing the whole song to 3/4, making the hemiola meter into the regular meter, the formerly-hemiola measures sound wooden and dull. In the real version, something else is operating to make the hemiola measures lively--that something being the underlying 6/8 meter.

The meter of "America" is notated as "6/8 (3/4)." This is a nice way of showing that 3/4 is present in some sense, but that 6/8 is privileged as the real, underlying meter. ("Real" and "underlying" are metaphors, of course.) If the song were instead in "3/4 (6/8)," it would sound rather different: the hemiola would apply not to "(A)-mer-ic-a," but to "I like to be in..." This would put the hemiola's extra energy in the wrong place.

Next time, we'll examine a hemiola that might not even agree with the underlying meter about where the downbeats are! Until then...

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about James P. Johnson?

11:30 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Clothing Store

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Arpey Social Media said...

"A Weekend in the Country" - ah, that takes me back, haven't heard that for years.

Is that you're favorite song from A Little Night Music?

7:51 AM  
Anonymous SEO Services Company said...

i truthfully enjoy your own writing kind, very remarkable,
don’t give up as well as keep writing due to the fact that it simply just worth to follow it.
looking forward to see a whole lot more of your current well written articles, enjoy your day
SEO Services Company
Dominican Republic Real Estate
Guaranteed SEO Services

2:46 AM  
Anonymous Accountants in London said...

i truthfully enjoy your own writing kind, very remarkable,
don’t give up as well as keep writing due to the fact that it simply just worth to follow it. looking forward to see a whole lot more of your current well written articles, enjoy your day
Accountants in London

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Nashville Air Conditioning said...

i truthfully enjoy your own writing kind, very remarkable,
don’t give up as well as keep writing due to the fact that it simply just worth to follow it. looking forward to see a whole lot more of your current well written articles, enjoy your day
Nashville Air Conditioning

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Hotels Near Cincinnati Airport said...

this is inspired. Really such a valuable post. I always stand with you.......

10:55 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home