9.MAlternative Metres

We hear proportions, not quarter-notes. We hear that a sound is the same length as its neighbour, or twice or three times as long, but we can't tell simply from listening how the music is notated. When you hear the rhythm in the audio-file below, for instance, there is no way of knowing which of the two bits of notation is being played . . . the proportions (2:1:1) are in both cases the same . . . .

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This doesn't only apply to simple patterns - all rhythms can be written down in a number of ways.

This is really useful, because some rhythms are easier to read in one notation than the other. In the piece that you played on the last page, for instance, I'd personally rather have seen the first of the notations below because the beams act as brackets that 'rationalise' the apparent jumble of eighth and quarter notes in the second version very nicely. Perhaps you had your own preference?

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Bourree, J.S.Bach

Changing the way that we notate a piece of music doesn't change the music itself. The notes themselves will be the same and the proportional relationships between their durations will be the same. We'll still hear the same number of beats in a bar - it's simply that we choose to use a different note-value to signify a duration of one beat.

In the first notation of Bach's Bourrée from the Lute Suite in E minor, for instance, we hear two beats in a bar and a quarter-note lasts for one beat (which as what you are used to). The time signature is therefore 2 (beats in a bar) over 4 (meaning that a quarter-note lasts for a beat).

  • Once you've got your inner metronome ticking, it's a mostly repetitive loooong-short-short rhythm.

The second version sounds the same. There are still two beats in a bar, so we keep the 2 at the top of the time signature.

But notice the 2 at the bottom of the time signature, too - that means that we're counting half-notes now, that a half-note has been chosen to last one beat. And - you might want to pour yourself a drink here - that means that a quarter-note is now half a beat, and an eighth-note a quarter of a beat . . . . no problem, just loooong-short-short . . .