Musical Subjects · Teaching


Part of a series of posts on the ‘musical subjects‘ I am working with in my classrooms and thinking about as a musician and teacher.

I often turn to Walter Piston when I want some inspiration for teaching or for my own practice. Here’s what he says about meter in his book, “Counterpoint”:

“In itself, meter has no rhythm. It is simply a means of measuring music, principally for purposes of keeping time, and as an aid in playing or singing together in ensemble music.” (Walter Piston, Counterpoint. Norton, 1947. pg. 26.)

This rings true to me. The language of meter—that of an accountant or an actuarial—gives it away. We count, we measure, we create bars and lines. Piston provides easy and obvious examples of music in which the melodic and harmonic rhythm do not agree with the grid on the page. For me the point is not that meter really exists only on the page, rather it is something we can feel as a living thing. It should be as flexible, responsive and alive as a beating heart.

In groove-based music such as jazz there is no other way to do it other than to feel it. Once you feel a regular grouping of beats into, say, three or four, there is nothing more to ‘measure’. The cycle of the meter in groove and dance based music is so much more than an ‘aid to playing or singing together’, though it certainly is that, too. Each beat has the potential to contain whatever can be imagined in time, with it’s own function in the cycle.

In the classroom, I find myself working with meter in ways that I don’t have to with other rhythmic phenomena such as beat, division of the beat or syncopation. I’ve never taught anyone to synchronize to a beat. I have simply set up the conditions in which this primal human behavior can take place. Not so with meter. For children (and even many adults) synchronizing an action to different parts of a measure takes effort, understanding, practice and often patience.

With children, the first thing I want to know is whether or not they can detect the regular, recurring grouping of beats into meter. Do they notice when this grouping changes, say, from four to three? Though I do not have any proof of this, I suspect they can feel metrical differences long before they can articulate them. This is why I like to slip different beat groupings under their basic locomotor movements. I’ll let them walk or even skip in 3 once in a while and watch them. They will sometimes look at me to see what I’m up to. Often, they’ll subtly change the way they are moving to reflect what they are hearing. Those are special moments!

By the time they are a little older (say 5 or 6 years), I can begin to get them to synchronize to specific parts of the measure. This week I (somewhat spontaneously) told a story about 3 spare parts in a warehouse that decided to find a way to work together. (One child did not understand the idea of ‘parts’ so it was not entirely successful!) In groups of 3 they assigned themselves an order and created their own movement possibilities. I improvised music with nothing but three grouped beats. As they gradually found a groove, I began to play more ‘naturally’, stretching phrases over the bar lines, adding longer durations to the melody here and there. For some groups, I even slipped in a bit of the Bach Minuet in G that many of them have heard. My 3rd-5th graders are comfortable enough with the concept of groupings of beats that we were able to explore meters of 5 in different combinations this past week (3+2 and 2+3). They were able to toss and catch stuffed bears (the balls were missing, so I had to improvise!) in groups of two and three.

For older kids, especially those that have had lessons, I also try to connect the work to the time signatures they encounter in their music books. I try to loosen the vice grip the quarter note has as representative of the beat. Any note value can be a beat after all, so I am careful with my language, “One way of writing the beat is with a quarter note, etc.” Children are taught to say that the quarter note ‘gets’ the beat. I am not at all convinced that this has lived meaning for most children and even many adults. I know it doesn’t for me. Why should a quarter note ‘get’ anything? If anything, it should be the reverse: the beat should get the quarter note as choosen by the one notating (the composer, the arranger).

When I stepped into a Dalcroze class for the first time, meter had long since calcified into ‘time signature’, a thing I ‘knew’ all about. Irregular meters perhaps could command my attention, but certainly I had long since mastered everything there was to know about 4/4. The power of creative, purposeful movement helped create a sense of mystery around this most basic subject for me that continues to unfold to this day, and that is something I hope to do for others as well as in my work with adults. The usual oversimplification applies here: the kids can feel it but can’t explain it, the adults can explain it but can’t feel it.

If I seem wary of this subject, well, it’s because I am. I notice that I emphasize it much less in my work with young people than I did when I first started teaching, perhaps because I am so aware of things I have needed to unlearn. I’ll give Emile Jaques-Dalcroze the last word on the subject for now:

“… the metric tradition kills every spontaneous agogic impulse, every artistic expression of emotion by means of time nuances. The composer who is obliged to bend his inspiration to the inflexible laws of symmetry in time-lengths comes gradually to modify his instinctive rhythms, with a view to unity of measure, and finishes by conceiving only rhythms of a conventional time-pattern.” (Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Rhythm, Music and Education. p.185.)

Related posts for personal practice:

Triple and quadruple time

Changing Meter: Reaction Game

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