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Important issues in rhythm and metre in relation to dance

Rhythm vs. metre
The perception of rhythm and metre
The Great Nineteenth Century Rhythm Problem

The rhythm and metre in music page is no more than an introduction to commonly used basic terminology.  To the extent that the rhythm and metre is a much debated subject in the fields of music notation, musical analysis, music history, performance practice, the psychology of music perception, literature, theatre and the visual arts,  and covers almost every period, style and genre from every country in the world, this introduction can be no more than crude and flawed compared to current scholarship. 

Just how crude and flawed it is can be demonstrated by the depth and breadth of recent publications in the field.  Christopher Hasty's Meter as Rhythmfor example, challenges not only Cooper & Meyer's differentiation between rhythm and metre, but argues for a new notion of metre as "projection"; Tania Maria Cancado's An investigation of West African and Haitian rhythms on the development of syncopation in Cuban Habaneras, Brazilian Tango-Choro, and American Ragtime(1791-1900) sets out to examine the interrelationship between music styles in five countries over a period of over a hundred years; in the field of acoustical research, Todd & Cody (2000) have investigated the physical effects of loud music in certain frequency ranges, and suggest that there could be a type of sound - or music - that literally makes you move. 

I have provided necessary working definitions, that is all. An awareness of current issues in metre and rhythm is more important than a catechistic knowledge of terminology; if, for example, the distinction between rhythm and metre seems unclear, it is because it is unclear or disputed.  If time signatures seem confusing, it is because they are, having  evolved from an accumulation of conflicting practices over a period of centuries.  Houle (1987) describes various states of confusion and disagreement about time signature between 1600-1800, many of which have not been satisfactorily rationalized to this day.   

Rhythm vs. Metre
Whether rhythm and metre are separate or interchangeable phenomena is a much-contested point among music theorists.  Hasty (1997) is one of those who have challenged Cooper & Meyer's separation of metre and rhythm. Whereas C&M define metre as isochronous pulses grouped by initial accent, and rhythm as the interplay between longer and shorter durations within a the metrical framework, Hasty argues that metre does not have to be defined by accent.  In prosodic terms (i.e. the way poetic metre is described) metre is a factor of variously accent or length, and therefore the metrical triad _uu may  interpreted as both metre and rhythm.  To reconcile this apparent paradox, he says "metre could perhaps be defined as the way in which one or more equal unaccented beats are grouped in relation to an initial accented one." (Hasty, pg. 51)

The perception of rhythm/metre
Things not to say in class No 3. Can't you hear the beat?

"Performers and listeners use the information in a composition to understand where beats fall and how strongly accented they are, but we do not literally hear beats.  We experience them - by means of mental processing of information...We react physically and emotionally to meter, but we do not literally sense it with our eardrums." (Kramer, 1998)
The Great Nineteenth Century Rhythm Problem
This attractive term was coined by William Rothstein in Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music. Rothstein argues that the popularity of short piano pieces for the amateur player, based on popular folk or dance styles in the 19th century, brought with it the tendency toward "too duple a hypermeter", and a "consistent and unvarying phrase structure."  (Rothstein, p. 184

What he means is this: if you write eight bars of a waltz in 3/4 time in a popular idiom (which implies 8 bar phrases), if you're not careful (or not a good composer) two bars will soon be subsumed into what sounds like a 6/8 bar (i.e. compound duple), the next two bars likewise - then those two 6/8-like bars will be mentally subsumed into a 12/8 bar.  The same happens to the next four bars, which leaves you with two 12/8 bars - i.e. two bars of "four", rather than eight bars of three.  It was, as Cone put it in Musical Form and Musical Performance "the tyranny of the four measure phrase", although conceding that "it is never in the music of the masters, a tyrant.  This is because it is for them a rhythmic, not a metric entity." (Cone, p. 74-75) 

Rothstein doesn't mean that this was a problem in the sense that cholera or tax bills are a problem, but that it was a challenge to the composer of works in this idiom not to fall into the trap of metre and phrasing so regular that it immediately implied a compound metre on the next hierarchical level.  The effect is similar perhaps to driving through a flat landscape and watching equidistant pylons go by - metre without rhythm (and changes in rhythm) is soporific.

The implications for music in ballet class are considerable.  Firstly this explains why 3/4, 6/8 and 12/8 are interchangeable when the music is in four bar phrases. Secondly, Rothstein is saying that it is an occupational hazard of the 4 bar phrase for inertia to set in, a sort of "movement without progression" as Adorno once said (with typical sourness) of dance itself.  If one of the aims of having music in class at all is to stimulate and provide musical inspiration, a format which carries with it an in-built tendency to staleness and inertia must be treated with care.   

Rothstein mentions Chopin (in the mazurkas and waltzes, for example) as an example of a composer who had the technique and artistry to avoid the GNCRP.  Nearly all Chopin's waltzes are an experimentation with the form, which is one of the reasons one doesn't feel inclined to tap one's foot to them - his aim is to lead the listener away from the obvious beats on a musical journey.  This is one of the reasons why Chopin's waltzes or mazurkas are not suited to class - they can be too misleading, too discursive, to provide an invigorating rhythm.  Tchaikovsky's achievement, then, in pieces such as the snowflakes scene in Nutcracker is particularly admirable. He manages to completely subvert the metrical structure while maintaining enough of it to maintain the excitement needed for an end-of-act corps de ballet piece.


Cancado, T.M (1999) An investigation of West African and Haitian rhythms on the development of syncopation in Cuban Habaneras, Brazilian Tango-Choro, and American Ragtime(1791-1900). Unpublished dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 

Cook, N. (1998) Analysing Musical Multimedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cone, E.T. (1968) Musical Form and Musical Performance. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton.

Goodridge, J. (1998) Rhythm and timing of movement in performance drama, dance and ceremony. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Hasty, C. (1997) Meter as Rhythm. New York: Oxford University Press.

Houle, G. (1987) Meter in Music, 1600-1800: Performance, Perception and Notation. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Jordan, S. (1996) "Music/choreographic discourse: method, music theory and meaning" in Morris. G. (ed) Moving words: dance criticism in transition. London: Routledge

Jordan, S. (2000) Moving Music. London: Dance Books

Kramer, J. (1998) The time of music: new meanings, new temporalities, new listening strategies. New York, N.Y: Schirmer Books

Rothstein, W.N. (1989) Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music. New York, N.Y: Schirmer Books.

Todd, N.P, Cody, F.W. (2000) "Vestibular responses to loud dance music: a physiological basis of the "rock and roll threshold"?" Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107 (1)



1. "By contrast" is important in this respect.  This is not to ignore the work of Laban, Benesh, Dalcroze, studies in motor ability, the considerable contribution of anthropologists to the subject, and of course the pioneering work of Stephanie Jordan, most recently (2000) in Moving Music.  Janet Goodridge's Rhythm and timing of movement in performance drama, dance and ceremony  brings together many of these studies in one book. However, the proportion of books about the subject in dance, compared to those in music is very small. 

2. A point discussed by Stephanie Jordan in her 1996 article "Music/choreographic discourse: method, music theory and meaning"

3. Balanchine, referring to Agon, is reported as saying that he wanted the public to "see" Stravinsky's music, to advertise it, as it were, with movement.  Does this not suggest that Stravinsky's work was therefore inadequate to its own task; that it took a choreographer to embody the music in a way which made it enjoyable or at least acceptable for the public?  Or that far from Stravinsky making "an honest woman [of ballet]", it was Balanchine who made an honest woman of Stravinsky's music?

4. "...the prevalence of what might be called hegemonic models in multimedia theory - the idea that one medium must be primary and others subordinate - resonates with socio-political structures that are deeply embedded in Western culture." Cook (1998) p. 117