Category Archives: Rhythm

Alma mater

It’s always special to take part in concerts in a school you attended as a child – one obvious element is that you bump into people you’ve known for quite a long time.

I was especially happy with the performance of the Knox Academy Guitar Group this evening’s Spring Concert. The piece was rhytmically tricky, relying upon fierce concentration but, once on stage, it felt more as though the group had secured the right feeling for the piece. Not only had many of the members performed 6 pages of music on Friday night as members of the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble, but several of them were instrumental (and/or vocal) in many other ensembles this evening.

Here is a clip of us during our rehearsal this morning: pick-up-the-pieces

Musical family trees and tap roots

Could it be the epitome of the Caledonian Antisyzigy that music can seem too precise for words while lacking the relatively precise history of linguistic family trees or the absolute precision of, say, phonetics. Although cultural links can be heard (and seen) intuitively by most pupils, pinning down the ingredients which lead to a correct identification can be trickier.

This thought sprang to mind while watching a TED video of Natalie McMaster and Donnel Leahy playing music from Cape Breton. Undoubtedly Scots in origin, what struck me most in the music was the piano accompaniment (from 16:15). It occurred to me that it was not providing rhythmic support as is normally understood because the rhythm in the fiddle tune was sufficiently strong. This left the pianist free to be complementary in the manner of pipe drumming (e.g. from 3:10 to 4:15 in this video of the 78th Fraser Highlanders). 

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The other thing I learned from the TED video was that step dancing is not solely an Irish phenomenon – although possibly the most joyous example of it I’ve seen definitely is (from 3:35 in this video). Featuring The Chieftains and Galicia‘s Carlos Nuñez it exemplifies the breadth of Celtic culture.

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In the following video of Natalie McMaster, the debt which tap dancing owes to traditional step dancing (among other sources) seems quite clear.

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Piano Phase

While looking into YouTube for illustrative material, I came across an accidental learning network which took me from vague understanding of a piece to one sufficient to recreate the piece from its DNA. Let me explain.

The piece concerned is Steve Reich‘s Piano Phase. (Part 1 on YouTube here – Part 2 here).

Reich, probably the best known minimalist composer, stumbled upon phasing technique by accident. He explains in this clip (at 2:30) from a South Bank Show special. The same recorded musical fragment was copied onto two separate tape loops (it was the 60s after all). Both machines were started simultaneously but, because few such machines run at exactly the same speed, one began to edge in front of the other – creating (the impression of) new rhythms and melodies emerging. Eventually they would end up back in sync.

Piano Phase, the first live phasing piece, begins with a 12-note fragment which you can see at 5:46 in the clip. This was a real find – the DNA of the piece. I decided to construct a version of the piece from that. The musical motif is to be played simultaneously by two pianists. Then one will edge ahead of the other. A live human performance would allow one person to make tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments. Using score writing software – I had to choose specific durations and decided that the size of step I would take would be half the length of the notes themselves. This means that, following the initial exposition of the theme, the music would move through 24 noticeable changes before returning to synchrony. In the following midi file (which really represents a portrait of the piece, as opposed to the piece itself) the piano on the right edges forward while the one on the left holds to the original pulse. Each edging forward takes place after 4 repetitions.

Piano Phase 

Having seen the outcome of this, I realised that the apparent simplicity of this music belies the incredible difficulty in performing it. Reich himself in the South Bank Show interviews, stressed how this requires listening at an intense level. Various phasing pieces ensued over Reich’s career. Some are played by two or more people and some by one person against a recording. This amazing and beautifully shot film of (parts of) Piano Phase features Peter Aidu playing solo, on two pianos:

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I was pleased at having learned so much about the piece and the compositional techniques but ended up being more interested in the following question: if you were taking part in such a piece would you prefer to play with/against:

  • another live musician?

  • a recording?

  • yourself?

Here are some other versions of Piano Phase on YouTube:

video phase      with dancers      DJ remix

Steve Reich also has a MySpace, which includes the entire South Bank Show documentary as well as extracts from My Name is Daniel Pearl; Fast; Music for 18 Musicians; Different Trains; & Electric Counterpoint.


Two cultures, beating as one

On a day where news broadcasts debate the disengagement of some young people from science (scroll down to 0720), I was heartened to receive an email alerting me to the publication of an article entitled The Rhythmic Brain by Katie Overy & Robert Turner. Both contributed to a fascinating conference I attended at Edinburgh University in December*. Put simply, the article touches upon connections between music – specifically rhythm – and language, evolution, neuroscience, psychology, learning, memory & genetics.

What disappoints me in some attempts to convince young people of the relevance of science is the all too easy citation of computer games. I tend to agree more with Quentin Cooper who opines that “science is a perspective.” There is a scientific aspect to everything. That’s why I applaud the efforts of organisations like The Wellcome Collection and Edge to heal the rift between sciences and the humanities and pursue The Third Culture. I am strengthened in this belief that some of the best writing on music is the work of scientists – a great many of whom are musicians.

Consider this extract from the aforementioned article:

Rhythm is a basic organising principle of music, providing a strict temporal framework for an infinite variety of playful and expressive musical behaviours, from clapping and dancing in a group to a virtuosic violin solo. This temporal organisation exists on a number of hierarchical levels (the pulse, the bar, the phrase), allowing for the simplest forms of synchronisation and prediction as well as highly complex, large-scale musical structures.

Music is a difficult topic on which to write – precisely because it conveys in seconds what words would take minutes to describe. I would argue that the distillation of content in the short paragraph above is nothing short of poetic.


* My intention had been to write up the conference but, as it was built around a book entitled Communicative Musicality, I think it would be better to write on the book once I’ve read it.



When I was younger, so much younger than today, a friend said that it was his choice not to read music as he felt it would remove feeling from the picture. I wonder how he would have coped with the assertion that, as a result of playing along with a computer, pupils would more quickly approach the right feel of a piece – even although the computer-generated file was devoid of dynamic variation (see Thoroughly Modern Midi) and flexibility of tempo. But such is the paradoxical world of IT and instrumental music. In a situation where the file will not only produce the written parts but also play-along audio files, it’s important to be fussy about articulation. Many pupils do not acknowledge written articulation but very few do not intuitively go along with it – if it’s contained in, say, a Sibelius or midi file. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising in a subject where the ears of many take in more than the eyes.

What is surprising is that, seated in a mixed group, most pupils will pick out the appropriate feel for their part even in a passage of mixed articulations, such as the one between 0:33 and 0:48 of this midi file-  Jealousy – where the legato notes of the tune and bass parts sandwich the detached notes of the three harmony parts; or between 1:03 and 1:55 where there are three simultaneous articulations:

  • legato tune

  • bass and lowest harmony part employing full-length notes, rests and detached notes

  • upper harmony parts restricted to on detached notes

Also surprising is that when discussing the (as yet unnamed) phenomenon of articulation in lessons, if you ask what aspect of music is being discussed, hardly anyone will guess correctly. Some will suggest, “rhythm” until you point out that, whether this aspect is observed or not, the notes all start at the right time, which is what many people consider rhythm to mean. However, when I say, “I’ll start to spell it out on this laptop screen and you try to guess before I get to the end of the word,” I rarely get passed “articu——”

Many pupils, baffled by the whole idea of articulation, find a way in through the following analogy:

  • detached notes – detached houses

  • legato notes – terraced houses

  • over-laping notes (chords or broken chords) – flats

The reason this topic occupies my thoughts at the moment is that yesterday, in the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble’s rehearsal for the Showcase Concert* I was delighted to see the group knock our arrangement of the Jacob Gade‘s 1925 tango tune, Jealousy into shape in pretty much one go – articulation and all – pretty impressive for a Friday afternoon! Ironically, it has more varied articulation per part than the other two pieces put together. Sometimes things just work out on their own.

* East Lothian Showcase Concert – Friday 27 March at 19:30 in Musselburgh Grammar School.


In 1977, while preparing for Higher Music, we used to practise rhythm dictation as a preparation for the more demanding melody dictation. It was a way of preparing a skeleton of the tune before worrying about the topography. Why not try it in this life-affirming syncopation-fest?

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 Why is it sometimes so difficult for musicians to keep in time* when effortless synchrony pervades the natural and mineral world?

Steven Strogatz describes some examples in nature and the rules – including an explanation of the ill-fated Millenium Bridge and some fantastic footage of starlings swarming.

One of the most interesting things in this talk was his request that the audience try to clap in sync. I would have struggled to decide quickly whether or not this was likely to succeed. I was surprised to hear that, rather than grow into synchrony, the audience seemed to begin in sync – undirected! Moreover, had I been asked to predict the speed at which unplanned, instant synchrony was likely to be achievable, I’d have guessed 120 beats per minute (bpm) the tempo at which the world’s armies tend to march and also of much dance music. However, this TED audience began at 132 bpm – surely a curious phenomenon from a group of seated academics.

* the most common cause of ensembles slipping out of sync is losing the battle against the tendency to accelerate – a kind of negative entropy. This contrasts with the more entropic tendency of a capella singers to lose pitch. I’ve always been surprised at this dissonance in the physics and biology of our subject.



A strange thought occurred to me today while watching a DVD performance today of Raymond Scott‘s The Penguin by Mr McFall’s Chamber (check out TheirSpace ). As far as I know there is not a YouTube video of McFall’s playing this and so, to give you an idea, here it is performed by Racalmuto:

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I think we’d all agree that the piece (particularly the introduction) could be described as comical – or at the very least light hearted.

Hearing it today reminded me of a remark made at a conference I attended last Saturday entitled Communicative Musicality. The contention expressed was that music, unlike language, does not have semantics. This prompted me to wonder how, given such conditions, this tune has the potential to be unmistakably humorous – even if played in an incongruous setting e.g. a cathedral, or at an inappropriate occasion e.g. a coronation or a funeral (I’d like to have it at my own – funeral, that is). I would go as far as to imagine that nobody from a culture entirely at odds with our own would mistake this for serious music. Surely our perennial vagueness about music is unnecessary and the quixotic elements of this piece could be isolated and their contribution to the overall mood evaluated.

This in turn reminded me of another topic in the conference: how should emotions be conveyed to the audience by a performer? Is it appropriate for the performer to join in? Might they get carried away and be unable to switch emotion when change comes along? You’ll notice that no-one in the above laughing or even smiling – mind you three of them are blowing into things!

If my ears are up to the job, I’d like to transcribe this piece and arrange it for guitar ensemble one day. If successful, I promise not to instruct the pupils to perceive it in a comical light and also to report their reaction to it.

p.s. this piece appears in the climactic and heart-warming circus scene of the film Funny Bones – well worth watching for this scene alone, featuring Freddie Davies – seen in this lugubrious photo from the film.


Syncopation (even earlier etymology here – as daft as that sounds) is the root of most rhythmic excitement – and trouble. The trouble is that, often, the only suitable counterpoint to a syncopated rhythm is another opposing one. How can pupils in an ensemble survive that? You can switch off to surrounding parts and concentrate on your own one but this means missing out on much of the enjoyment. Even if you manage to switch off to the distracting parts and get in the groove of your own part, even its patterns break off into different syncopations in order to avoid monotony. And some of them could turn out to be helpful if only you could single them out.

Take these 32 bars of samba – extracted from a new piece introduced at today’s East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsal. There are six parts with six or seven people to a part. samba-full-ensemble

Closer inspection reveals that the six parts really fall into three teams – each with its own rhythmic patterns and breaks:

  1. melody

  2. four harmony parts

  3. bass line

The trouble is that the pitch of the melody part falls more or less in the middle of the four harmony parts.

So we remove the tune in the hope of hearing how the bass interacts with the harmony parts: samba-bass-harmony-only

Then you can’t help feeling that it might be helpful to hear how the harmony parts bond: samba-harmony-only

In order that the pupils can practice with or against each of these combos – at a variety of speeds – I’ve posted 15 versions of the piece on the Guitar Group Midis page.

While preparing the play-along files I recalled how, around 10 years ago, I was struck to notice a school guitar group incorporating quite detailed articulation* into a medley of Burns tunes – even although there was none written in the music. It occurred to me that years of aural exposure allowed them intuitively to include what the written parts had omitted. I determined thereafter to be as fussy about the articulation as possible. The resulting paradox is that using a completely unmusical tool (a computer) has resulted in more expressive articulation than leaving it to chance and feeling. The pupils can afford to be intuitive but I can’t.

* articulation = the way in which the notes overlap, join up or separate; whether the transition between any two adjacent notes is elided with slides and slurs; the way notes are perceived to be grouped together through combinations of heavy or light touch

Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 2

Peter Lovatt’s improvisation workshop, which followed hot on the heels of The Science of Improvisation, concentrated on verbal as opposed to musical improvisation. I imagine the reasons for this included:

  • not all present would have brought instruments

  • not all present were musicians

  • breaking into groups, working verbally would produce less racket than would its musical equivalent

However, being an guitar teacher, I’ve since thought about how to make use of parallels. I should perhaps point out here as a prelude to outlining my memory and analysis of events that, unlike the two longer seminars, I did not make an audio recording – the nature of the workshop simply wasn’t going to lend itself to that, as we were frequently to break into changing groups to try out the various ideas. I know how unreliable memory can be, but I feel I can remember most of what happened.

At the heart of the workshop was Continue reading Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 2