Category Archives: Rhythm

Composition II – Rhythm and Meter

Plenty of contemporary art music has ordinary rhythm. There are other approaches, however, that can be used to provide different sorts of rhythmic interest.

Music that seems to be free or only loosely coordinated

One example of this music is the first movement of Olivier Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, entitled Liturgy of CrystalListen to this music while following the score, noting how each instrument seems to move at its own pace. What aspects coordinate this music? Do instruments seem to align with the meter? Or to each other? Where do you perceive downbeats?

Some music provides extreme freedom in its interpretation, giving little information about how it is to be rhythmically interpreted. For instance, the beginning of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s My Desert, My Rose has performers coordinate by reading from the score (it’s here) until rehearsal letter T [here], at which point the music (more or less) settles into a consistent 7/8 meter.

Music with a propulsive beat

Much music of the 20th and 21st century has a strongly propulsive beat, not unlike some classical music of the past and certainly similar to much rock and jazz. Complex rhythmic patterns can be especially clear when they are accompanied by a persistent groove. The second movement of Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 is a great example of how small bars (in this case, 2/4) can be combined to make phrases of different lengths with a constant flow of 8th notes providing a rhythmic underpinning.

Music in unbalanced meters

While traditional music tends to be either in simple or compound time, music can also combine aspects of each (for instance in 5/8 meter, in which each bar has one simple beat and one compound, not necessarily in that order) or can shift from one to the other. Returning to Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, this approach can be seen in the sixth movement, called Dance of the Furies, for the Seven Trumpets. A tour-de-force entirely in octaves and unisons, notice how bars combine aspects of simple and compound meters (and more complicated rhythms, like beats with five 16th notes), and how Messaien did not even notate meter.

Music can also sound fresh and unpredictable in a consistent meter with an uncommon time signature (like Steve Reich’s Eight Lines in 5/4), or free and flexible in meters that change constantly (like Reich’s Proverb), or this part of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (this recording is of Stravinsky’s own arrangement of the orchestra score for two pianos). Another terrific example is #140 (“Free Variations”) from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos.

Tempo fluctuation

Some composers, most notably Elliott Carter (1908-2012), explored the use of metric modulation to move from one tempo to another. Here’s a charming video of a drummer demonstrating the concept. Carter’s music is particularly complicated in this regard because the metric modulations are combined with an existing complexity of rhythm. For instance, in his solo guitar work Shard, a metric modulation in bar 5 uses one sixteenth note of the previous tempo as a single triplet unit in the next. In bar 17, the duration of five 16th notes becomes used as the new quarter note pulse. This continues…

Additive rhythm is a name given to the technique of using flexible lengths for musical fragments, constantly changing the lengths of a particular gesture. This can be reflected in changes of time signatures, or with a consistent time signature (as in Jacob her Veldhuis’ Caterpillarhere is one page of the score).


The use of two simultaneous rhythmic “paces” (“polyrhythm“) can provide great rhythmic interest. This can happen through the use of tuplets, like in this segment of the second movement of Charles Ives’ Trio (layering triplets in the cello and the pianists’ right hand against sextuplets and septuplets in the other parts). It can also occur in the layering of different-length patterns that share a beat-division, such as Adam Silverman’s Pounding Fists; notice in this score, starting in bar 5, how a raucous texture is created with repeated ostinati of different lengths (the triangle pattern repeats every two beat, the bell tree every four; the glockenspiel ostinato lasts five eighth-notes; the two vibraphones loop every three eighth-notes; the two marimbas every five sixteenth-notes).

Take a few pitches; shake, strain

A rare photograph of Irving Berlin and David Lang taken ca. 1935 and 2005.
A rare photograph of Irving Berlin and David Lang taken ca. 1935 and 2005.

It’s may seem like a huge stretch to find parallels between the music of Tin Pan Alley songsmith Irving Berlin and avant-garde postminimalist David Lang, but here’s a great meeting point in two pieces of music separated by more than 60 years: the use of systematic rhythmic permutation.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing

[Listen to the music and see the first page of the score]

Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993) was David Lang’s breakthrough piece, putting him on the map as a hugely influential composer. I remember hearing it for the first time back then and being dumbstruck by its visceral energy and rhythmic unpredictability. There’s something about its clangorous instrumentation — especially in its “rhythm section” of kick drum and brake drums — that I feel establishes a perfect balance of metric “orientation” and “disorientation.” I’m especially thinking about its first third (up to 3’50” on the Bang on a Can All-Stars recording) and its last minute (starting at 9’36”). For years, I never attempted to figure out if a pattern guided his process — I just marveled at the clanky rhythms.

There is a pattern under it all, of course, and it’s fun to figure out. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to tell you what it is, so if you want to give it a shot first, here’s a tip. Skip the first two bars (the intro) and take the music in dictation, all in 4/4 meter, separating the treble and bass lines to consider separately. See if you can find what’s going on.

Continue reading Take a few pitches; shake, strain

Rhythms are Boring; Rhythm Is Fascinating

spiralWhat do students learn about rhythm? Mostly these things, which are all essentials:

  • Rhythm (in most music…) is based on a series of steady “beats,” which are somehow organized into metric patterns (duple or triple, simple or compound, and so forth) based on surface patterns in the music.
  • Musical notes indicate relative duration: a whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight eighth notes, and so on.
  • These notes may be organized to “play nicely” with the meter, or to “rub against” it, which would indicate a “pick-up,” a syncopation, or something called hemiola. Students should be able to define hemiola once and are not asked about it after their second week of school until the third semester, in which they will point it out in music by Brahms.

But that’s pretty much where rhythm ends in textbooks. Steven Laitz goes a little further by writing a few paragraphs on what makes rhythm… well… what makes rhythm. There is harmonic rhythm (patterns made from when harmony moves from chord to chord), there is change of musical patterning, and a few others based on changes in texture, dynamics, and register. It’s accompanied by a confusing diagram of eight bars from a Mozart sonata.

Continue reading Rhythms are Boring; Rhythm Is Fascinating