We’ve focused in this chapter on beats, measures, and beat divisions. We’ve talked about these three layers in part because they are the three layers most clearly indicated by time signatures. Other systems of discussing and representing time in music around the world also typically define or imply a small number of layers. Nevertheless, music may create a sense of even faster or even slower layers of motion.
Unless the tempo is very slow, motion faster than the beat division will very quickly exceed our capacity to measure and distinguish events, so we won’t worry about this too much here. Of course, if the tempo is indeed really slow, keeping track of divisions of the beat may be useful in keeping a steady tempo—just because the beat is too long to predict with accuracy.
It may, however, be useful to pay attention to slower layers of motion. In certain styles of popular and classical music, for example, phrases are often four measures/cycles long, and tracking these measures as if they were beats in a slower, usually quadruple “hypermeter” can help us focus on this sense of larger-scale pacing. When we’re listening, paying attention to hypermeter can help us determine whether and when it is regular or irregular. When we’re making music, either in improvisation or performance of notated music, paying attention to hypermeter can help us create a larger sense of overall shape rather than getting stuck in the choppy, repetitive nature of the repeating basic cycle/meter. This is, in a way, the message of Benjamin Xander’s popular TED Talk below, though he incorrectly implies that this perspective is relevant only to classical music.
Because hypermeter is often not taught until higher levels of aural skills instruction (if it is taught at all), we will develop this section more in future editions of this text.
Goal: Develop sensitivity to phrase lengths, and whether they are consistent or inconsistent
- Start one of the songs in the playlist below.
- As you listen, find the measure.
- Once you are consistently able to track where the measure starts over, start the track over, this time counting how many measures are in each phrase.
- Once you’ve listened to 45–60 seconds of the song, answer the following questions. Are the phrase lengths consistent or inconsistent? What is the effect of this consistency/inconsistency?
Goal: Develop sensitivity to phrase lengths and phrase shaping in your own repertoire.
Before you start: Find a piece of music for your primary instrument. (We are assuming it is notated, but you may also work aurally with the music without a score.) It may be helpful to choose something that is relatively sustained and legato at first, though the principles can apply to most anything.
- Study the first phrase, considering it as a whole. Where is its climax? Should what comes before and after be louder or quieter?
- Plan out a gesture that would show the shape of the phrase as a whole. Arm gestures are often particularly useful here. One gesture that is often particularly appropriate is starting with an arm across your body, and gradually drawing it out to its own side and then away from your body as it goes up and down as necessary to reflect the melody.
- Carry out that gesture as you hear the first phrase in your head or sing it aloud, making sure to feel the sustained, goal-directed motion of the gesture.
- Optionally, perform the phrase on your primary instrument, imagining the feeling of that gesture as you play.
- Repeat these steps with additional phrases, being sure to consider how they relate to each other.