Music consists of two major categories: pitch and rhythm. Pitch results in harmony and melody and rhythm is affiliated with meter, beat, measure and tempo. Pitch deals with frequency, but we are not going to cover that in this article. Rhythm deals with time and its Greek origin means “flow”. There are many ways of describing rhythm but to put it simply, it is the timely flow of music or the calculation of durations (note values). Each note regardless of its pitch has a certain count to it.
We have simple and compound time signatures (measurements in music of the number of beats, also called metric signatures). However, the compound ones can be simplified into two or three or four beats. Let’s take a waltz which has three beats. This means that throughout the piece we count “One, two, three,” repetitively. One is the strongest beat and then two is weaker and three is the weakest. One is known as what we call “downbeat” or strong beat and is the impulse. The subsequent beats are the carry-through.
To really understand this sense of meter, try the following movement to embody it: Listen to a waltz such as The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss and count along with it. You will notice that you are counting up to three repeatedly. Stand up and while bending your knees, clap on the first beat and then gradually straighten your body and bring your arms up over your head, sort of reaching towards the ceiling, during the second and third beats. Then swing your arms back down again and clap once more on the first beat, repeating this same movement. Keep at it until you embody the entire piece.
Please note that this has nothing to do with the work that the metronome does. The metronome helps the player have a steady tempo (speed). However, doing this body movement helps the musician spot the downbeat and procure energy there so that the rest of the beats will come effortlessly. A similar analogy is driving a car. You first press on the accelerator to get into motion and then the momentum tends to carry through.
Also, since the downbeat tends to be accented (stressed more), there is a frequent tendency for musicians to bump it out, meaning to put too much unrefined force onto the beat, which is not proper control and which ruins the music. What this movement exercise does is help with that.
Remember that rhythm is what carries the piece and drives the pitch related aspects in music. Therefore, having a sense of meter, by embodying it, would mean the piece would be more accurate, shapely, coherent and refined.
This is all part of a philosophy known as “movement education” or “body in performance”, developed by Dr. Alexandra Pierce, Professor Emeritus, University of Redlands, whom I studied under. Movement Education embodies the several aspects of music (such as phrasing) in a physical, kinetic form away from the instrument. The results are a much more meaningful performance, as music becomes much more sensational, using one’s entire existence and not just one sense, hearing.
by Evelyn Simonian
© 2010. Evelyn Simonian