Meter in dance and music

Keywords:

This blog note explains the way I (as a partially competent musician) have rationalised the concept of ‘meter’ from the perspective of dancing (at which I am more competent).

The problem to somehow mediate between a dance concept and the established de facto western classical musical understanding of ‘meter’. From the dance perspective the ‘meter’ relates to sensing and moving to the music, but this is different between genres, cultures and contexts. In conventional musical theory there are a number of beats in a repeating structure (the measure) where the time duration of beats are equal. Each beat can be sub-divided by factors of 2 (but also by a factor of 3 in “compound” time). This give a metronomic basis to music where there is a constant ‘clock’ rate (taking the terminology of digital electronics) from which the beats and measures are derived.

In the European traditional dancing context ‘steps’ (actions involving contact of the foot on the ground) are connected to rhythm and are dominant in the concept of dancing. The issue of non-equal and asymmetric beat durations is common throughout Europe, almost as if it should be the norm. But it is also a norm to notate the music and dance for simplicity in the assumption that the musician knows how to interpret this. Examples such as Scandinavian polska in 3/4, Irish hornpipes in either straight or “dotted” quavers, Romanian Soroc (Ardeleana) in binary time signatures, Serbian Žikino kolo in 3/4, Bulgarian Eleno Mome in 7/8.

How I use meter with regard to dance structure

On our website (http://www.eliznik.org.uk) we use the ‘dance counts’ to group dances into types and families rather than the musical notated meter.

The ‘meter’ comprises the dancer ‘counts’, it is the dance ‘count’ for steps that is important, rather than a meter derived from musical notation. These counts may all be ‘equal’ length or ‘asymmetric’ counts, but even is a simple time signature we are well aware that dance ‘groove’ twists the rhythm. One could suggest that totally equal lengths of counts and beats is a rare ideal.

For example a Transylvanian Învârtita (which might be notated in 7/8 (3+2+2) or 10/16 (4+3+3), but might be closer to <2+2+3+>3) is clearly danceable in 4 counts (steps). I say 4 counts as the melodies or dance can be transformed directly into the binary version called Hățegul or Bătuta.

Whereas, for example, versions of the Banat Brâu or Serbian Žikino kolo are often notated in 7/16 or 3/4 respectively, however these dances are clearly in 3 counts and musically close to a 10/16 (4+3+3), but the long beat is not divisible into two dance counts preventing one from, say, dancing an Învârtita to any of these. (see eliznik.org site)

The ratio of count lengths is very important for dancing, but can also vary between versions of the same generic dance. For example, a 4 count Șchioapa might be written in 9/8 (2+2+2+3) but this is the same generic dance as Hodoroaga generally written in 5/4 (2+2+2+2+4), and not linked in any way to the 2 count dances Rustem and Paidușca written in in 5/16. As the American folk dance expert Dick Crum says about the dance Rustem,

Written notations of Rustem tunes vary in their time signatures (2/4, 3/8, 6/8, 5/16), showing attempts to put on paper one of the distinguishing features of Rustem dances – an elusive “quick-slow” rhythm is which the ratio of quick-to-slow varies from one musician to another, from one village to another, etc.

Dick Crum[1]

The subtleties of timing for a particular genre are learned through life, so that those listening can easily tell if the music is not played by musicians from their native region. This is even more of an issue for ‘good’ dancers who know how to time their muscular impulses for jumps, hops and elevations precisely in order to use gravity and maintain a perfect timing to the music.

From a musician’s perspective the dance counts mostly include more than one note, so for the musician there is some necessary sub-division of the dance counts, maintaining the dancers groove, but traditionally these subdivisions may not be equally divided either. I like to think of it as a variable clock rate that repeats through each measure of music, this also being the case for the pauses and hesitations in many dances.

Other references …

In this case, it’s not the dancers that are weird, but the musician: pulse is a sensation. It’s a sensation for dancers and musicians. […] Real metre as perception can’t be fixed, because it’s dependent on tempo and what you’re doing to the music.

Still 2009[2]

I have always rationalised the ‘meter’ and ‘groove’ in this way since I started playing music for folk dancers (this did not help in my classical music exams!), but it seemed that no one else also thought the same way, so it is good to now find that others have published similar ideas.

Jonathon Still, a pianist who accompanies ballet classes, has many blog posts on rhythm, music and dance in the context of ballet. He validly points out that it is all about sensation[2].

Metric skills allow us to hear these subtle variations in timing as characteristic of meters in various styles, genres, and even particular performers. Thus, our knowledge of meter (a kind of procedural knowledge) involves not a few basic patterns, but a large number of context-specific, expressively-nuanced tempo-metrical types. This is the many meters hypothesis. (REF)

London 2004 [3]

Justin London discusses entrainment (synchronisation of rhythm) in perception and cognition with musical rhythms. The abstract to his chapter “The Many Meters Hypothesis” quoted below needs no further explanation. Particularly interesting in the context of Balkan rhythms is his paper of on fast tempi 2+3 and 2+2+3 meters (Paidusho and Rachenitsa in Bulgarian dance context) although he used western trained rather than Bulgarian trained musicians for his experiments[4].

However, connotations of metric organization that accompany time signatures in the literature are not always part of current performers’ conceptions. (Goldberg, 2020) page 89

Goldberg 2020:89[5]

Daniel Goldberg has written a detailed article on the meter for the Bulgarian dance Eleno mome (Elenino mome) (Goldberg, 2020) concluding that 7/8 is a close approximation. But dancers and musicians know this dance does not conform to the strict concept of beat durations of 2 and 3 in Bulgarian traditional music as it is taught. If one tries to notate the beat ratios using a constant clock rate it is clear that it is a bit short of a 7/8 so another approximation used is often 13/16, however this loses sight of that the ‘feel’ and the ‘pulse’ is slow-slow-quick-slow, even if the actual beat lengths are not exactly 2+2+1+2.

Returning to the Romanian Învârtita, Steve Kotansky a folk dance teacher in US, said for the Romanian Fecioresca men’s dance and Învârtita,

It is generally syncopated and often difficult to ascribe to a particular meter. It is therefore preferable to think of it in terms of dancer’s beats or accents. The basic breakdown of beat is 3: Long-short-short (or slow-quick-quick), but this can be further broken up. http://www.socalfolkdance.com/dances/F/Fecioreasca.pdf

Kotansky[6]

Although my view is that it is better to think of this as 4 counts, as explained above, Kotansky has combined the first two into a ‘long’ in his perception.