FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Reading Problems: Rhythm

This page is part of the general article dedicated to Music-Reading Problems.

The notation of rhythm is both simpler and more standardised than the notation of pitch. Whereas any single pitch (note) can be notated in five ways (double flat, single flat, natural, sharp or double sharp), rhythmic values are standardised. As long as it starts on the beat, a crotchet (quarter-note) is always a crotchet: it is never notated as two tied quavers (eighth-notes), nor as three tied quaver triplets nor as four tied semiquavers (16th-notes). Likewise for quavers, minims, whole notes etc. This doesn’t mean that reading rhythms is easy – it still requires a huge amount of hours to automatise the decoding of the note values – but it does mean that rhythm reading tends to more straightforward than pitch reading.

The complications in rhythm reading that derive from the notation arise principally from two sources:

  • the choice of time signature and
  • the user-friendliness (or not) of the beaming

Let’s look now at these two questions one by one:

1: CHOICE OF TIME-SIGNATURES

THE TOWER OF BABEL

When composers notate their music in a different key signature to how it sounds (see Pitch Reading/Notation Problems) this can create unnecessary reading difficulties (depending on how far apart the two keys are). Likewise, when composers write the music in such a way that it “sounds” with a different pulse to that which is indicated by the time signature, this also can create unnecessary reading problems for the players, this time with respect to the rhythm. This situation is relatively common in music that alternates between 3/4 (three beats to the bar) and 6/8. Sometimes the composers change the time signature, other times not, but this is only the easiest example of  the problems derived from “polyrhythms” because here, the measure pulse (the accent on the first beat of each bar) doesn’t change. Other cases can be much more confusing.

NOTATION CHOICE OF BAR LENGTH (= PULSE FREQUENCY)

Even when the musical pulse does correspond to the time signature, composers have a large choice as to which time-signature they might use to notate their music. The exact same music, at exactly the same tempo, can be written with different rhythmic notations, for example, as an Adagio, a Moderato, or a Presto, simply by using the appropriate time signature and rhythmic note values. The fact that there are so many ways of notating the same rhythm is one of the main causes of rhythm-reading problems, especially in the orchestral repertoire – and most especially in the operatic repertoire – in which the frequent tempo and time signature changes can take us by surprise. In the following example, Verdi chose the Prestissimo 4/4 time signature with one pulse per bar, but the music could sound identical with the other alternative time signatures also. With each example, the frequency with which we might want to stomp on the beat is reduced. Basically each barline is a new stomp, so by the time we get to the Adagio version, the party is over. Now the music, although still going at the same speed as in the first original Prestissimo version, is now floating ethereally. This is the meaning of the barline. According to Einstein, his “Theory of Relativity” was completely inspired by music, which is not at all surprising.

Verdi’s original choice is a very fast, exciting pulse, but even faster, and perhaps the world record in that department, would be the second movement of Shostakovitch’s Eighth Quartet, in which the speed is “whole note = 120” or, in other words, two bars per second. This reflects perfectly the absolutely maniacal frenzy (panic) that this movement represents, and is the absolute opposite of the deep religious calm of the Allemandes from Bach’s 6th Cello Suite and 1st Violin (Solo) Sonata, in which one bar lasts an eternal 9-10 seconds!

The cello repertoire has some other unexpected curiosities in the key-signature notation department:

In some other movements of the Bach Cello Suites, Bach also writes the music using quite bizarre time signatures (note lengths). For example, just like in the Sixth Suite Allemande, in the Allemande of the Third Suite the note values are also half of what we might expect. In other movements, Bach does exactly the opposite, using the “old” style rhythmic notation of the pre-Baroque composers, in which the notes are written out with double their “normal” values. The Courante of the Fifth Suite (and the Sarabande of the Sixth Suite) are examples of this.

The use of time signatures requiring very small note values (half the length we might “normally” expect) is found also in several movements of Bach’s unaccompanied violin music, notably the Allemande from his First Partita, the Grave that starts the A minor Sonata, and the Adagio that starts the g minor Sonata. This gives an abundance of tiny note values, which have been counted and compared in the Table below:

USE OF VERY SMALL RHYTHMIC VALUES IN BACH SLOW MOVEMENTS FOR SOLO CELLO OR VIOLIN

PIECE

SEMIDEMIQUAVERS
32nd NOTES
3 BEAMS

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS
64th NOTES
4 BEAMS

SEMIHEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS
12
th NOTES
5 BEAMS

Allemande:
Vc Suite VI

363

56

0

Allemande:
Vln Partita I

107

35

0

Adagio: Vln
Solo Sonata 1

157

97

4

Grave: Vln
Solo
Sonata II

280

55

0

 

This stuff is hard to read ! Bach loved mathematics and reading this is mathematically challenging for the normal musician. To decipher this music we don’t even need our instrument: this is a mathematical exercise for which we just sit down with the music and a pencil and try to figure out the rhythms. This level of written rhythmic complication is however perhaps unnecessary. Its only real use is to make it clear that the essential pulse of the music is very slow. Rewriting these movements with note values twice as long (and bars twice as short) removes completely this unnecessary reading difficulty but we need to be careful when playing these pieces to make sure that we feel them with the very slow pulse (minim instead of crotchet). That is why this music is available here in both the original version and the “easy to read” version (with longer note values).

2: BEAMING

The thaughtful use of beam subdivisions can greatly help us make rapid sense out of passages in which many semiquavers (and/or smaller note vaues) are beamed together under one beat. When the sub-beams are broken at the corresponding beat subdivisions, this gives us an immediate graphic indication of how the notes are distributed across the beat. This situation arises most commonly in slow music, with rapid floritura passages of many “tiny notes” under a slow pulse, as in some of the pieces discussed above.

Unfortunately, once a musical score (part) is printed, it woud be painstakingly laborious to modify the sub-beams. In all the music pubished on this website, care has been taken to use “user-friendly sub-beaming” in these types of passages, to make the reading of the rhythmic subdivisons easier.