Part 6: Beyond The Odd Meters: The Mixed Meters
(Previous essay: “Part 5: Examples of Odd Meters in Modern Music”)
Combinations of different meters used in a single music piece are called Mixed Meters. They could be used to create a variety of special effects in music or as a support for any given musical, lyrical, dramatic or thematic context. Since most of the music is obviously written in a single meter, with either the entire music works or at least their individual movements being built on a consistent metric pattern, mixed meters would naturally serve as a perfect tool for breaking this uniformness, for adding another layer of rhythmic complexity or for metric exploration and experimentation.
Based on their placement in musical works I would classify mixed meters in three groups:
– Continuous mixed meters are successive identical patterns consisting of the same combinations of meters which are repeated consistently throughout the entire music piece
– Periodic mixed meters appear regularly within a music piece or have a specific placement in the arrangement. For example: music pieces with different meters or meter combinations used in different sections, specific (uniform or non-uniform) meter sequences reflecting the melodic component etc.
– Sporadic mixed meters which would be just a single inserted meter combination or a random occurrence of different meters within a single piece.
EXAMPLES FOR MUSIC WITH MIXED METERS:
Jazz Pianist Duke Pearson’s tune “The Fakir” was released on his 1966 album “Prairie Dog” and at the first hearing of its introductory groove it immediately brings to mind Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” or John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things”. However, in contrast to these two other tunes’ stable meter, this soul-jazz pearl brings into play an interesting mixed meter by combining a 3/4 jazz-waltz feel with a 5/4 meter. The rhythmic foundation for the theme rests on the following sequence:
Intro: ||: 3/4 | 3/4 | 3/4 | 3/4 :||
Lead melody: ||: 3/4 | 3/4 | 3/4 | 5/4 | 5/4 | 5/4 | 5/4 :|| 5/4 | 5/4 | 5/4 | 5/4 ||
“The Fakir” by Duke Pearson:
Another beautiful tune from the late Sixties is Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me A Bed Time Story” originally released on his album “Fat Albert Rotunda” in 1969. A beautiful laid-back melody with plenty of off-beat syncopations flows lazily through a 4/4 meter until it gently rises over a four-bar 5/4 meter section in a preparation for the next theme cycle.
“Tell Me A Bedtime Story” by Herbie Hancock:
A beautiful tune “Angel’s Flight” by a musical group Shadowfax opens their self-titled second album “Shadowfax” released in 1982. This delicate tale gently floats over 4/4 and 7/4 meters, faithfully depicting its own title.
Another excellent example for mixed meters by Shadowfax is their song “Castaneda’s Boogie” – already discussed in the previous essay (“Part 5: Examples of Odd Meters in Modern Music”).
“Angel’s Flight” by Shadowfax:
English multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield experimented with mixed meters on his famed debut album “Tubular Bells” released in 1973. He had incorporated several different meters into this elaborate conceptual project. The distinctive opening theme starts with a unique sequence of two different odd meters:
||: 7/8 | 7/8 | 7/8 | 9/8 :||
The specific variations of odd meters used are:
7/8 = (2 + 2 + 3)
9/8 = (2 + 2 + 3 + 2)
As this piece gradually develops, more meters are introduced, namely the 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4.
“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield:
Stephan Micus, a German multi-instrumentalist and avant-garde musician and composer, well known for his far-reaching musical explorations, including his unique improvised syllables vocalizations, offers a variety of unusual time signatures such as on his recording “Thirteen Eagles” from his sixteenth album “Desert Poems” released in 2001. This piece opens with an ad-lib improvised introduction and eventually settles into a 13-beat meter. Although the number of beats obviously mirrors the title, I prefer to look at it as a seamless alternation between the 6/8 and 7/8 meters.
“Thirteen Eagles” by Stephan Micus:
Following is the ultimate example for odd and mixed meters in music. This piece is one of the first attempts at fusing traditional Balkan music with jazz-rock and certainly one of the most successful ones. This is an original composition by the legendary Serbian guitarist and composer Radomir Mihajlović Točak (in Serbian alphabet: Радомир Михајловић Точак) and it is simply titled “Oro” which is a common name for a traditional Balkan circle-dance. It was released in 1976 on his first solo-project album “R. M. Točak” that also features his teammates from the Serbian Progressive Rock group “SMAK” which he founded in 1971. This is a fast paced tour de force exercise, deeply rooted in the traditional melodic phrasing, built on a complex rhythmic foundation. The underlying metric sequence is as follows:
Guitar Intro (ad lib): || 7/8 | 7/8 | 10/8 | 11/8 | 7/8 | 10/8 | 4/4 ||
Theme A: ||: 13/7 | 11/7 | 13/7 :||
Theme B: ||: 11/8 | 11/8 | 11/8 | 13/8 :||
Theme C: ||: 11/8 | 7/8 | 7/8 | 11/8 | 13/8 :||
Theme D: ||: 7/8 | 7/8 | 7/8 | 7/8 :||
Theme E: ||: 9/8 | 7/8 | 7/8 | 7/8 :|| 7/8 | 7/8 | 11/8 ||
Except for the guitar intro, the entire cycle of themes (A-E) repeats three times. With a more detailed analysis of this song we could identify the exact rhythmic subdivision variations used for each meter:
Intro: || 3+4 | 4+3 | 4+3+3 | 4+4+3 | 4+3 | 4+3+3 | (4/4) ||
Theme A: ||: 4+2+3+4 | 4+3+4 | 4+3+2+4 :||
Theme B: ||: 4+3+4 | 4+3+4 | 4+3+4 | 4+3+2+4 :||
Theme C: ||: 4+3+4 | 3+4 | 3+4 | 4+3+4 | 4+2+3+4 :||
Theme D: ||: 3+4 | 3+4 | 3+4 | 3+4 :||
Theme E: ||: 2+2+2+3 | 3+4 | 3+4 | 3+4 :|| 4+3 | 4+3 | 4+3+4 ||
The metric analysis above reveals that two different rhythmic subdivision variations are used for the 7/8 and 13/8 meters:
7/8 = (3+4) and (4+3)
4/4 = (2+2+2+2)
9/8 = (2+2+2+3)
10/8 = (4+3+3)
11/8 = (4+3+4)
13/8 = (4+2+3+4) and (4+3+2+4)
“Oro” by Radomir Mihajlović Točak:
Such rich and intricate metric organization as seen in “Oro” could be labeled as an example of the extreme rhythmic complexity, however the reason behind it is the structure of the melodic elements – the lead melody and its phrasing. In fact, metric variety is not uncommon in traditional music. One such example is an old Serbian traditional folk song from the province of Kosovo and Metohija titled “Oj golube, moj golube”. The original metric arrangement includes 2/4, 3/4 and 5/8 meters:
|| 3/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 3/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 2/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 ||
A slightly modified solo piano rendition of this folk song can be heard on my second solo piano album “Under The Sacred Tree” released in 2018. This album is available at my BandCamp.com online store.
Some of my own compositions involve mixed meters. One such piece is “The Evening Song” from my solo piano album “Over Seven Seas” released in 2011, which is available at my BandCamp.com online store.
The basic metric building block for this piece is a symmetric two-bar sequence comprised of two alternating variations of a 7/8 meter:
(7/8) + (7/8) = ( 2 + 2 + 3 ) + ( 3 + 2 + 2 )
Such rhythmic sequence is the consequence of the melodic phrasing. In other words, the placement of the downbeats in the meter has been determined by the structure of the lead melody and its fragments.
“The Evening Song” by Koshanin:
(available on “Over Seven Seas” album at BandCamp.com)
“Fairy’s Dance” is another piece from my album “Over Seven Seas” that is based on two different meters. The first few sections of the song cycle rest on a 7/8 meter, while the following sections are based on a two-bar sequence of 6/8 and 7/8 meters. The 6/8 bars, being one eight-note shorter, create a lifting effect in tempo and, along with the ascending harmonic progression, contribute to the emphasizing of the “resolving” role of these sections.
“Fairy’s Dance” by Koshanin:
(available on “Over Seven Seas” album at BandCamp.com)
(Note: the [6/8 + 7/8] sections start at 3:13 and 4:01)
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now that you have arrived to this point, after successfully making your way through all six essays, perhaps you’ll feel that reading them was worth your time and attention and that, even though they focused only on a very specific rhythmic aspect of music, you might be now looking at music as an infinite source of mysteries and new discoveries!
In these times of rapid technological advancements music became an inseparable part of our lives. From music on Radio, TV, films, Internet to music in stores, offices, portable music players, smart phones, computers and so on – music became easily accessible and freely available to everyone but as a consequence our ears became saturated with a seemingly endless stream of sounds. As it turns out, music became a victim of that same technology by being increasingly devalued and reduced to a meaningless sonic clutter – a random noise which we are simply registering without any attention. From the healing and ritual music to sacred, spiritual music and religious chanting, we have arrived to an era of electronic music with its “custom phone rings” and “system notification sounds” in computers. One can’t help but wonder if this “sonic evolution” ever gets to a happy ending?
To truly experience any phenomena in this world we need to be fully present with our consciousness. Only with a focused mind can we fully enjoy the music and restore it from a mere background noise to what it really is – the highest form of human expression!
Instead of just hearing the music – let’s truly listen to it!
(Next: “Part 7: “Specialty Mixed Meters…” Coming soon)
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