Time for Theory Class, Where Are My Bulgarians?

You know, no one ever taught me how to teach music theory. I’ve been winging it in 16 years of on-the-job training. And if anyone’s got a new idea of how to teach it, I’m all ears.

Several people, in response to my long case for the prosection against college theory, have suggested that a theory curriculum should begin with the study of rhythm. I’m much in sympathy with this idea. Who wouldn’t be? Rhythm is the part of music everybody likes, the part that can lead to every different culture. African mbira music, and Balinese gamelan, and roots-rock reggae, and Renasissance polyphony, and the blues, and Japanese gagaku, and Bulgarian folk music don’t all have harmony in the same sense, and they don’t all use the same pitches, but all God’s chillun’ got rhythm. So let’s start out with the feel-good subject that everyone gets excited about.

And I do. After a little section on pitch notation and a lot of basic rudiments (it’s always surprising how many students don’t know that 15va means two octaves, and you’ve got to explain fermatas, and double sharps, that ties go between noteheads not stems, and get everyone on the same page), we study rhythm. Nearly all my students come in knowing how to read music. We tap 8th-notes in 2/4 and 3/4, and that takes up about 45 seconds. Differences between 3/4 and 6/8 take about another two minutes. The idea that there are 3 beats in 9/8 and 4 in 12/8 is not going to sink in clearly for weeks, if ever, but I introduce it. Then, being a composer, and having 62 minutes of class time left, I get fancy, as composers do. I chart the possible organizations of 5/8 and 7/8 and 11/8. I play them amazing recordings of Bulgarian folk songs in 11/16 and 7/8 meter. I go into polyrhythms, and show how to figure out 4-against-3, and 5-against-6, and “PASS the GOD-damned BUTter” and “SHE’S PREGnant, DON’T know WHAT to DO,” and all that. They find it interesting. I mention fractional meters, and non-power-of-two meters like 4/6 and 17/24, as found in Boulez’s music and my own. I have even gone so far as to beat a steady quarter-note, have half the class clap 4-in-the-space-of-5 and the other half 5-in-the-space-of-4, and let them figure out that they’ve just performed 16-against-25. It’s a blast.

Now, before you bring up the obvious objection, let me say that, the arbitrary way we organize it, I don’t teach ear-training. We have a young woman who teaches that, who sings a hell of a lot better than I do, and thank goodness she’s not as good-looking as me or the contrast would be really depressing. Teaching students to perform rhythms accurately, or to notate them from dictation, is a long, grueling, never-ending process. It’s performative, and it takes practice. I don’t do a lot of that in theory class. She does.

But let’s just survey the progression theoretically. The students have learned that Bulgarians have no trouble singing in 11/16, and that 16-against-25 is performable. They never imagined such possibilities. The entire rhythmic world seems open and full of adventure. What do we do next? We look at a friggin’ Mozart minuet. BAA-dum-dum, BAA-dum-dum, BAA-dum-dum. Short of inviting some actual Bulgarians into the classroom (and there are never any around when you need them), there’s not much I can bring into class as examples that pursues these newfound possibilities aside from a few pieces in Bartok’s Microcosmos. What am I going to say to freshmen, “Now that you’ve learned how to do 11 over a 4/4 meter, let’s open Stockhausen’s Gruppen“? The sad truth is that all the music they’re going to encounter before they see The Rite of Spring in my Modernism class, and in fact 98% of the music they’re going to run into in their entire life, falls, rhythmically, into two categories:

1. Classical-based notated music which is almost inevitably in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, or 12/8, and

2. Pop music whose rhythms are basically unnotatable, but are tortured into wildly inaccurate quasi-syncopations in the sheet music that would sound wretchedly stilted if you actually sang them that way, and are almost all in 4/4 anyway.

The sad truth is, we in the West come from a rhythmically impoverished culture, and to the extent that our rhythms are livelier than Schubert’s, it’s in a performance-based way that is not capturable in notation. Were I a faded reggae star sent to pasture in the classroom, I’m sure I could give some wonderful demonstrations of different ways to swing a 4/4 beat, but, take my word, a Kyle Gann in dreadlocks is not a sight you want to spring on a bunch of impressionable freshmen.

By now you’ve got your finger on the “comments” button, but stop!: I already know what you’re going to say. The rhythmic interest in classical music isn’t in unusual meters or polyrhythms, it’s much more subtle than that. It’s in the different hierarchical ways to combine measures into phrases, the way a measure or group of measures can play anacrusis to a structural downbeat. It’s true. I took a rhythmic analysis course in grad school, and while my fellow RILM addicts did their final projects on Bartok, Stravinsky, Ginastera or somebody, I rather negatively astonished them by analyzing the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh. And what I found impressive was the way that the delayed resolution of Bruckner’s large-scale structural syncopations, all pointing toward that cymbal crash at the climax, interacted with the harmonic rhythm and tonal resolution. But it’s obvious from the very words I’m using that this is a subject requiring considerable sophistication. I am not convinced that the hierarchical rhythmic organization of classical music can be reliably discussed without reference to harmonic rhythm, and thus harmony. To dissect rhythmic organization in classical music requires knowing the harmonic rhythm, and how dissonance and resolution affect rhythmic perception, and thus you have to know harmony first.

In addition, large-scale rhythmic organization is not unambiguous, but prone to subjective interpretation. One chamber music coach will tell the players to move the music forward to this point, another to that point. How many arguments are there in print about the correct accentuation of the opening of Beethoven’s First String Quartet, or the Fifth Symphony? It is not, I don’t think, something you can teach freshmen by pointing to on the page without first teaching them, through performative experience, a large number of relevant analytical and right-brain criteria without which they will be incapable of deciding whether a beat is “important” or “emphasized” or not.

Someone suggested the book The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer, which is a good book that I hadn’t looked at in many years. I’m not going to go back to campus for my copy on a lovely summer’s day, but one can reread excerpts at Amazon, and on page 15 I find the following:

Because the more a tone seems to be oriented toward a goal, the more it tends to function as an anacrusis, rising melodic lines, particularly conjunct ones, tend to become anacrustic. The energy and striving implicit in a rising line make each successive tone move toward the one which follows it, rather than from the one preceding it. A rising melodic line feels very much like a crescendo. Indeed, most people perceive it as such. This is shown not only by the tendency of performers to crescendo in rising passages and of composers to indicate crescendos over rising passages much more frequently than over descending ones, but also by the fact that people actually tend to hear higher pitches as louder, even though intensity remains constant.

To the seasoned musician who reads this, this is very clear, and is validated by experience. It draws together a million intuitions one has had in the playing of music, and creates articulate order from myriad vague impressions. To the young guitarist in a garage band who’s just found out there’s music beyond Phish, I can’t imagine what this could mean, if anything, beyond a platitude that he would immediately contradict by writing a crescendo over a descending line. If forcing them through augmented sixth chords is torture, what would this be? The book’s preceding examples of different ways to notate “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in order to suggest different rhythmic organizations seem designed to challenge a web of assumptions that the beginning musician has not yet formed. The subtle higher-level organization of classical rhythm is, it seems to me, a subject for which an experienced musician can draw on his experiences, not an empty theoretical container that the 18-year-old musician can fit her upcoming experiences into as she gathers them.

In short, I can’t see that the theory of rhythm can be taught, at the beginning of a musical education, in anything like the same methodical and exhaustive abstract way, on a blackboard, that the theory of harmony can. The music of India is one of the most rhythmically complex and sophisticated on earth: how does the Indian student learn rhythm? From observing his teacher, who is a master performer, and who says, “Watch me and repeat what I do.” At its deepest, rhythm is a feeling that enters the system through the body and the right brain. Analyzed before it is felt, it becomes stilted. I believe that my student’s piano teacher can teach him more about rhythm than I can, by saying, “No, play it like this. Put the accent here. See how much better it sounds?” After a few years of that, and with an understanding of harmony under his belt, the student can then embark on the rhythmic analysis of entire works, which is a fascinating study.

I would that it were not so. Perhaps I’m mistaken. If anyone can offer a different way to think about it, it would be a relief to jettison all my inconvenient opinions about the subject.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    One thing I always go back to is cautioning against merely counting. I find that things like Bulgarian/Balkan rhythms don’t so much break down into simple 16th-notes, as they do shortenings or extensions of one or another of the beats. It’s much more simply a feel rather than a count; so that 11/16 is really just a 6/8 with one beat robbed of a little of its value… Nothing hurts a student’s grasp more than obsessive counting.
    KG replies: Admittedly. So even if I could get the Bulgarians to show up for my class, my students would be better off taking private lessons with them.

  2. says

    Actually, there’s an aspect of surface rhythm as well in classical music that I’ve not encountered much theorizing of. Before I ended up developing a style which is all notated in eighth notes I used to look quite obsessively at distributions of note values in melodies. Where does long change to short, what is the range of note values employed in a certain section, how does the note value distribution interact with the melodic contour and the rhythms of the high and low points in the melody, etc. (The rhythmic implications of melodic contour are still among the most important concerns in my music!).
    So there’s an aspect of rhythm in classical music here that does not necessarily include advanced harmonic analysis but that does, to me, seem worth analyzing – though I’ve not often seen good theorizations of it. It would rather relate to a study of surface gesture, or of melodic typology, than to a study of harmonic structure.
    In fact, it’s a lack of understanding of the details of surface melodic possibility that makes so much new music so dry. Most obviously you can see that in bad postserial writing where every statement has more or less the same melodic and rhythmic values, it all turns around in the same way – you know, all those bunches of grace notes going up and down. And this aspect is also related to what I find problematic in the music of Carter – structural rhythm is strong, metric complexity is intriguing, the dramatic sweep is all there, but the contours and the way they interact with the levels of note value always (with lots of elasticity in the variations) express one and the same melody (which is basically the multi-levelled one-high-point-only sekundgang melody from counterpoint exercise).
    KG replies: That’s one of the most accurate statements on Carter I’ve seen.

  3. Philp says

    Moondog’s “Madrigals” are great for teaching more unusual rhythms. They are fun to sing or play on instruments and the voice leading is always perfect.

  4. Arthur Jarvinen says

    I can’t even imagine anyone being able to play Balkan music who has to count rhythms. I’ve played in several Balkan bands (bass and guitarron). I don’t think that much of the time I was even aware of what meter we were in. Eric or Milen would play the opening bars, and the rest of us would come in. You play from bar line to barline – the big pulse – and in between you are in the groove. If you’re not, your game is up and you’re not in the band anymore. You can’t even rehearse that shit slowly, so you never have time to count it. You got rhythm – or you don.t play. No idea how I would teach that. So I don’t. But I can play it.

  5. says

    Have you ever listened to any Don Ellis? His big band records are amazing compendia of rhythmic practice. Tears of Joy includes several really swinging tunes in all sorts of meters. The title cut, for example, is a tight little pop song in 7/8.

  6. says

    Samuel, that’s a wonderful observation about Carter’s melodic writing, but I don’t see that it’s a criticism, just a characteristic. It doesn’t seem any more valid than complaining about tonal composers who always establish I, move away and then return.

  7. says

    the music ed person in me is cringing at all the anti-counting rhetoric. Nothing hurts a student’s grasp more than obsessive counting. i couldn’t disagree more. i’ve seen so many kids crippled by the ‘you just gotta feel it, man’ attitude. they never figure out how to read, they can’t figure out printed rhythms for themselves, they can’t sight-read for beans, and they end up dropping out of music because they ‘don’t got it.’ that’s crap. learning to count is a coordination exercise that most certainly benefits from using your body to feel, but having some verbal anchors is not a crime and can actually be extremely helpful. yes, eventually you drop the 1e&a’s and learn to feel it and be creatively flexible, but you have to start from somewhere. next time you get a group of beginner or intermediate students together, teach them how to feel the difference between a quarter note triplet and a 3+3+2 pattern without actually referring to any numbers and let me know how it turns out.

  8. steve voigt says

    Hey Kyle,
    Could you post the titles of 2 or 3 bulgarian records you like? I have the old “Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares,” but that’s not really “folk,” and I’d love to hear more. Thanks.
    KG replies: I just have the old Nonesuch records, A Harvest, A Shepherd, A Bride: Village Music of Bulgaria, and In the Shadow of the Mountain: Bulgarian Folk Music. Came out in 1970 and ’71.

  9. says

    2. Pop music whose rhythms are basically unnotatable, but are tortured into wildly inaccurate quasi-syncopations in the sheet music that would sound wretchedly stilted if you actually sang them that way, and are almost all in 4/4 anyway.
    I don’t know if this helps or not, but there’s plenty of odd meter stuff going on in current indie rock. Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois has tunes in 5, 7, 11, etc, and Broken Social Scene’s big hit tune last year even has the time signature (7/4) in the title. These are songs your students will almost certainly be familiar with going in.
    KG replies: My 21-year-old son, guitarist for the band Architeuthis and the resident pop music expert, has barely heard the names of the bands you mention. His comment was, “Be wary of anyone who tells you about a band that all your students will know about.”

  10. says

    Andrea, I respectfully disagree. If one is doing extremely complex interlocking rhythms, obsessive counting does get in the way and hinders group cohesion. This is based upon my years of playing in various Balinese gamelans. If I stopped to figure out exactly which subdivision of which gong I was on, I’d not only derail myself, but the other poor sangsih/polos player trying to interlock with me. Some things are only possible as a sensation, not a brain impulse, especially at the speed by which most Balinese pieces are played. If I stopped to count something, I’d be cycles behind the rest of the gamelan.

    I know Arthur Jarvinen from my days at CalArts, and he’s one hell of a teacher. He’s also a hell of a musician, who’s played a lot of wacky, difficult music. Needless to say, he’s been around the block a few times.

  11. Niemand says

    South Indian rhythmic solfege, Solkattu, has a marvelous training tradition based not only on
    “Watch me and repeat what I do” but also upon learning a theoretical structure that is not only comprehensive, but open ended. The goal of the student is to assimilate patterns and possibilities from the teacher and other musicians as well as to discover new possibilities: in a Tala of 4+3+2 beats, how many cycles does it take for a pattern of 3+2+1 beats to come out even? then how many cycles does it take to come out even if my pattern is augmented every cycle by 1/2 a beat? And so on, improvised in real time, of course.

    In the case of additive rhythms like the Bulgarian examples, perhaps it’s useful to qualify the notion of “not counting”, by saying that they are not counting every single one of the smallest common units, but rather counting a series of unequal metrical feet, not thinking of 11/8, for example, but of a measure of four feet, running along in a proportion of 4:4:4:3. This makes particular sense for dance musics, each associated with a particular swing or groove of this sort, and indeed, even in boring old classical music, many “movements” were originally performed with such a built in tempo rubato.

  12. says

    Lawrence – the comparison with tonal music doesn’t hold for me, because departure-and-return from the I is not a surface thing, it’s a background thing which a.o. generates expectation. Carter’s melodic style does not so much generate expectation as it does repetition (just less obviously so than in minimal music).
    KG pipes in his 2¢: Besides, there are lots of tonal composers whom we criticize for a lack of variety in the foreground, like all those mid-19th-century guys (including Wagner in Flying Dutchman) who overused the diminished 7th chord. Being a “great” composer involves juggling musical materials on many levels at once, and I agree that Carter’s failure to achieve meaningful variety in that crucial area, especially after 1955, reduces him from a great figure to an interesting but usually slightly disappointing one.

  13. says

    Niemand wrote: In the case of additive rhythms like the Bulgarian examples, perhaps it’s useful to qualify the notion of “not counting”, by saying that they are not counting every single one of the smallest common units, but rather counting a series of unequal metrical feet, not thinking of 15/8, for example, but of a measure of four feet, running along in a proportion of 4:4:4:3.

    This is what I was talking about, definitely. Counting’s cool, Andrea; the obsessive trap is that they keep counting, everything, all the time.
    So in the example above, though the goal is to “feel” the 15 in four broader beats that happen to contain 4, 4, 4, and 3 16ths, they just keep furiously counting “ONE two three four / ONE two three four / ONE two three four / ONE two three” over and over… All the elastic is gone; it becomes all about ticks and beats but there’s no rhythm, no play.

  14. says

    jen, i’m certainly not trying to diss mr. jarvinen’s musicianship, nor steve layton’s. i have no experience in gamelan or bulgarian musics, but i have seen too many high school band directors, instead of empowering their students to really understand rhythm, say “oh, it goes like this: bam bam bam.” and then the whole ensemble plays it back incorrectly and the rehearsal moves on. i’ve seen elementary school students never comprehend dotted quarter notes because they can’t grasp the fractions in that way (what is one and a half beats? or heaven forbid getting a 10 year old to add an eighth and a sixteenth…), their other teacher just sings it to them once a week and the rest of the week they just play it wrong at home. then they come to me and i tell them they’re playing it too long or too short and their problem would be solved by some counting. are my students resistant to counting? absolutely. no kid wants to work that hard. but the kid that gets past that resistance is able to figure out rhythms for themselves. i’m not against learning by ear, or learning to feel things, i’m just against anti-counting. counting is a useful way to get to the point of feeling.

  15. says

    Kyle, due respect to your son and all, but Sufjan Stevens and Broken Social Scene are hardly obscure.
    As for whether your students will have heard of them, well okay — fair point, musical taste in the 18-22 set is incredibly diverse and fragmented, so it’s entirely possible your students all shun indie rock in favor of emo or metal or hiphop or mainstream pop or whatever. But I stand by my statement that anyone with the slightest interest in indie rock is going to be familiar with Sufjan and BSS.

  16. says

    Time for that classic Morton Feldman quote:

    “…See the artist has an incredible problem. Especially if they’re young and they’re growing up, because everything is right. Bach is rightGluck is right, Palestrina is right, Karlheinz [Stockhausen] is right, everybody is right. The confusion of a young artist growing up is not the confusion that everybody is wrong and I’m right, the confusion is that everybody is right.”

  17. says

    SZ and KG — I have one more cent in my pocket: the argument against Carter still doesn’t cut it for me. Is there a single composer in history of whom we could say s/he consistently varied musical materials on every level? Bach? Stravinsky? Ives? Anyone?

  18. says

    steve, i’m right with you. (sorry, kyle — this is turning into sequenza 21) that just sounds to me like someone who hasn’t practiced the stuff to the point of feeling it, someone who, perhaps, isn’t quite ready to put it together with the whole group, yet. i’m very challenged in the large motor physical co-ordination department, but rhythmic feel issues are well address by movement. i know that we’re not supposed to move in the classroom once we’re in college, but adding some orff/dalcroze/weikart stuff to a freshman ear-training and theory curriculum would be truly revolutionary (oops. i really didn’t mean the pun, but that’s pretty funny…).
    KG replies: As long as I’m the bouncer, it can be Sequenza 21. Although I’d be more likely to call it Gymnopedie 21.

  19. says

    sorry to bombard you, but i’ve been continuing to think about this all morning. the issue we are facing is not merely what to teach in theory class, but how we teach what we teach in theory class. it’s always bugged me that music academia completely ignores the vast strides music education research has made (and heck, regular education, too), and fails to incorporate it into its own pedagogical practices. the unspoken rule is that by the time you’re in college, you’ve outgrown the need for diverse methods of information gathering; there are only two acceptable modes: lecture and reading. it’s not ‘babywork’ to use manipulatives or small group discussions to grasp concepts. and by manipulatives, i don’t just mean pencil and paper, i mean having physical objects to move around. that would make the concepts of inversion, retrograde, etc. come alive for a lot of people. how about actually lining twelve people up in class to represent pitch classes and then moving them around? what would happen if gardner’s seven intelligences were incorporated into undergraduate theory classes? yes, it requires a lot of work to make up those kinds of lesson plans, but there’s so much to gain. rhythm is a great candidate to tap into students’ spatial, math, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic reasoning facilities. a general ed music requirement could become something folks look forward to instead of sleep through. so my recommendation, kyle, is to leave the theory books and start looking at dance, orff, dalcroze, kodaly, weikart (a gym teacher from michigan who has come up with a pedagogical method of teaching basic timing through movement that emphasizes levels of information absorption. interesting stuff.), gordon, and gardner. it’s the acceptance of the “methodical and exhaustive abstract way, on a blackboard” as the only way, as the mature way, as the sophisticated way, as the best way to teach theory and ear-training that is a disservice to the students.
    KG replies: A friend of mine has done a lot of research into what some call the three modes of learning – aural, visual, and kinetic – and I am painfully aware that I am no earthly good at kinetic, either as student or teacher. I think you’re right: the college teaching community has a long way to go towards addressing the diversity of teaching modes people need, and the primacy of the lecture format (much as I try to jazz it up) needs to be questioned more. I’ll keep an eye out for the pedogogical methods you recommend.

  20. Richard says

    “When I was a child I thought like a child: now I see through a glass darkly”. I think the disageements between Andrea and others is somewhat overblown. Of course mechanical teaching (ie “tapping” and counting) of rhythms/meters will not produce perfect musical results at first. But you have to start somewhere. Let’s face it, teaching “textbook” four-part common-practice era functional tonality is somewhat divorced from “real” music of the time. It is artificial, but a useful tool in enabling a better understanding of harmonic practices of the period. Having worked as a studio teacher for all my adult life, I have never had a student who could play rhythms correctly who never tapped. Of course, at some point the internal metronome takes over. Those who won’t or cannot tap seem unable to translate notation into anything other than an approximation. They have no sense of a pulse or its’ subdivisions. Note values degenerate into a very loose inexact proportionalism, where some notes are longer or shorter than others.A sort of Rubato Par Excellence (sp?) I remember a discussion on this blog about a piano recording where the performer did not play a 5/8 measure(I think) correctly. And I have heard more than a few perfomances where I felt that a “soulful” rubato was covering up a poor sense of rhythmn
    Kyle,I think some of the problems you’re seeing are the end result of inadequate teaching. A sort of Rubato with Par Excellence (sp?) I think, that in regards to teaching meter/rhythm, it is unfair to ask theory teachers have the sole responsiblity of filling in the gaps in the students knowledge. Sadly I don’t know of any instrumental methods that clearly tackle the problems of meters with asymetrical pulses or tuplets. The one thing I do know, is that listening to, say, Bulgarian, music, will go a long way in helping young musicians understand, and feel, rhythmns that were not used during the Common Practice era, or for that matter, pop music. I know it worked for me!

  21. zeke says

    “beyond a platitude that he would immediately contradict by writing a crescendo over a descending line”
    I think I actually asked you about crescendos over descending lines in Music Theory class, and I don’t even listen to Phish!
    KG replies: Hello, Zeke! Here’s one of my test subkects now.

  22. says

    Hi Lawrence – I wouldn’t just demand variation on every level. Out would go some of the composers that have been most important to me (Lucier, Johnson, early Reich, etc) – not to mention a lot of my own music! So it’s not variation that I want. It’s clear expression. (I think the keyword in Kyle’s addendum to my comment is “meaningful”).
    Now Carter, to my ears at least, is promising lots of expressive detail and not giving it, just giving the same thing over and over. A seemingly naive comment of a friend of mine made me first see this clearly. I was in school and studying the Concerto for Orchestra, trying hard to be impressed, and she said “Just one of the op. 19 Schoenberg pieces contains more musical information than this entire score”. Now this statement may perhaps not work for you but it did for me. It’s true – the whole concerto does not contain anything as sharp and enigmatic as the rhythmic major third in the first bar no. 2.
    Ever since, I have heard Carter’s surface melodic style as consisting largely, and in some pieces exclusively, of expressionist cliché. It simply does not, to my ears, have much profile. Of course there’s a lot of things about those pieces that are strong at the same time but melodically it is just very very flat.
    By contrast, in someone like Ferneyhough, I *do* get all the surface expressive detail that the complex style promises. One may find other things in his work problematic, but I definitely hear a real gestural sharpness and richness there in the details.

  23. says

    Thanks for the explanation, Samuel. I see what you are talking about. I don’t agree, but I understand, which is more than I could say before.

  24. Michael Wittmann says

    Two quick comments, at the end of a long and probably dead thread…

    1. Sufjan Stevens and his album Illinois were voted top album (or top 5) in many, many music magazines and on critics lists in 2005. The album is just great, and I suspect that many students wouldn’t know it, but those who did would be tickled to hear these elements of it. There are so few “universal” albums these days, even in pop music…

    2. Even the basics of meter in rock music are fun to explore. Radiohead did the song Morning Bell in 5/4 time on Kid A (2000) and in 4/4 time on Amnesiac (2001), and the former sounds a ton better than the latter, for all its non-rock rhythm. I just presented a series of songs in different meters (riffing on the metametric series you printed a few months back) to a group of 17 year olds, and the response was very enthusiastic. I don’t know where I come down on the “counting or not” coin, since many in the room sensed the rhythms instantly and others couldn’t even find the 4/4 rock beat with the snare on the 2 and 4. Oh, well.

  25. says

    A quick note on Bulgarian and Balinese rhythms: First, as a “classical” orchestra conductor who has indeed worked with local Bulgarians to produce a concert featuring Bulgarian folk music + the HUGE (yet largely unknown) catalog of Bulgarian “classical” music, the most effective means of introducing my orchestra to those nifty, funky Bulgarian rhythms was to bring the Bulgarians into rehearsal and teach us some of the most basic dance moves from which these funky rhythms sprung forth. The only reason they appear as 11/16 or whatever is because as the need arose to notate them this is the closes translation that could be thought of. In fact, the Bulgarians DO NOT count out every “8th” or “16th” note while performing their music. They express them as long and short beats. They actively discourage trying to count it out, and expressed that the only way to hope to begin to play it accurately would be to feel the long and short beats.
    As far as gamelan (with which I’ve also created joint concerts with an orchestra I’ve conducted), it is my impression that there absolutely is counting involved by each person in the ensemble, emanating from the musical leader. It is unlikely that each person who is playing their own quick-note pattern would be intellectually trying to fit it in with somebody else’s differing quick-note pattern. The counting is how each individual is keeping in time with the musical leader.
    It seems to me that because we spring from the academic world (either as teachers therein or products thereof) we tend to intellectualize the heart out of most things, because that is what we have been trained and encouraged to do. Don’t get me wrong, my favorite part of learning/preparing a piece of music is the analysis: harmonic, formal, whatever is appropriate. For me that leads me inexorably to the emotional, spiritual, storytelling, whatever heart of the music. But I believe we can take this whole thing too far and prescribe the process too broadly.
    My fondest dream in the world of higher music education would be to have the music theory and music history instruction spring from the music that students are actually learning, preparing to perform. This way we wouldn’t have to find the One Model of teaching theory, but instead would most naturally introduce the elements that are appropriate to each work of music, and have them mean much, much more than just head knowledge to be parroted back in tests.
    (So much for “quick.”)

  26. ben wolfson says

    I once read an interview with a bassist in Ivo Papasov’s band (Papasov being reportedly the Bulgarian clarinetist) who said more or less what Arthur Jarvinen said above; you just have to be able to know what’s going on or you’ll fall on your ass.
    I would have suggested “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head” from Sufjan Stevens’ Greetings from Michigan, but unless DJA’s idea is explicitly to use something with which your students might be familiar, it’s not as if non-4/4 rhythms are in any way new in pop music; you just have to get out of inaccurate critical commonplaces about punk. Or you could just go with, say, Ahleuchatistas. (Whom your son, based on your description of his band’s music, might be more likely to have heard of.)