Monday, February 20, 2012


Another old post worth reviving...

  One of the things about Baroque music that I’ve noticed is that many works are in triple time (3/4, 3/8, 6/8). This applies to both art music and popular (dance) music. (No, I haven’t forgotten the pavan or the allemande.) What I find really striking, though, is that the most common metrical figure is a short pick-up note followed by a dotted note—usually a sixteenth, followed by a dotted eighth. I think there is a good reason for this, though it is one that escapes most all of us in western industrialized society today: these are the rhythms of a horse’s gallop. This is perfectly natural, as horses were a part of everyday life fron Antiquity to the end of the nineteenth century and everyone would have been familiar with the rhythms their hoof beats made.  They were a common part of the aural environment and are what people would have listened for and would have expected.
   Contrast this with the predominant beat of music today, especially popular music, which is 4/4 with the accent on the two and the four or, in the case of house dance tracks, a straight loud 2/4. I can’t think of a single dotted rhythm in pop music. What do we have here? We have the sound of the machine. Machine sounds dominate our sonic world, so subconsciously these are the sounds we all relate to, like it or not, and it comes out in our music. No one rides horses anymore, so rhythms based on their gallop are meaningless to our ears. Though we may take some small pleasure in them as curiosities from the past, we neither expect nor desire to hear them in the music we make today. The sound of the machine, though: now that’s something we know, something that’s in our blood.
   In a way the loss of this natural lope to our sensibilities is kind of sad, as it reminds us once again of the increasing distance between how we perceive our current manufactured reality and the natural world around us. Our isolation is in many ways nearly complete. There’s no point in waxing nostalgic about it, though. One is indeed the product of one’s environment, and where this will take us is anyone’s guess. Put plainly, in Judy Segabarth’s immortal words, it’s just "Natural Selection, At Work".
It’s a wiggly world.


  1. The machine must be comforting, Frank. Good jazz is not of the machine, but many - perhaps most - folks are uncomfortable with jazz as it can be a demanding rhythm, i.e., you gotta listen to it to get it.

    1. I LOVE jazz, Ross. It's one of the musical products of modern industrialized culture that goes beyond four fourths on a regular basis. I especially love the six fourths stuff. Unfortunately jazz (along with all the other more interesting and inspired comtemporary musics that explore odd meters) occupies a minority niche within the compass Popular culture. Hence, your observation holds true: most people won't listen (or think) outside the box and they don't get it.