Tag Archives: pulse

The Goldilocks school of “Just Right”

Guest post by Gil Jetley, pianist, teacher and director of Music Holiday Italy

Whilst putting on his music critic’s hat, George Bernard Shaw once declared with great wisdom that the primary function of a conductor is to beat time.  

Er, yeah – I think we might have guessed that!  

But maybe not in the way he meant. You see, he meant that in beating time the conductor was setting the tempo – his point being that for any given work there is one tempo which is right. And other tempos (or tempi, if you must) which are not.  

With this view I largely agree; but it doesn’t only apply to orchestras. It seems to me these days that many pianists, even those great virtuosos that should know better, often play much too fast (and sometimes too slow).

If it’s too fast the sense of the music becomes unintelligible, a meaningless gabble of sound. No chance for it to breath or convey an expansive thought. And because the professionals do it, so too do too many students. Often for no better reason than because they can. There’s no doubting the phenomenal technical skills of the present generation – if measured in accuracy and speed (and one might add volume!) it’s very probably considerably higher than ever before. But since when did music become an Olympic event?

The same applies at the other extreme – taken too slow all sense of continuity, line, and phrase are lost. I recall a memorable masterclass with Andras Schiff where he parodied a famous colleague by playing ultra slow with hugely ‘expansive’ rests and declaring, “You see, I am so profound because I am so slow. The slower I get, the more profound I become!” (The movement in question, in case you are interested, was the Adagio from Beethoven Sonata Op.2.no.3).

GBS was right – for any given work there is a tempo that is right for the musical sense, and the tolerable range either side of that tempo is not very great. A true musician would be unable to bring himself to step beyond those boundaries. Even with the likes of Argerich and Yuja Wang, one might occasionally ask, ‘Well yes, most impressive, exhilarating, astonishing even, but is that really what the music means to you?’ Or one might put the opposite question to Baremboim. But never either to Wilhlem Kempff.

Related to that, I have two students preparing works at opposite ends of technical demands – one has the gently introspective Schumann ‘Scenes from Childhood’ and the other the mighty Bach/Busoni Chaconne. From the Schumann, a classic example of an excess of “tempo-induced-profundity” destroying the continuity is the genuinely profound final item, The Poet Speaks. But others in the set too (‘Dreaming’, ‘Almost too Serious’, ‘Child falling Asleep’) are equally at risk of being taken too literally!

In fact, if one is to perform the whole set it is rather nice to find an overall idea of tempo that works for all the pieces. That’s not to say they should all be played at one consistent tempo, but that there can be some feeling that the tempo of each individual piece is in harmony with that of the others. Without a shadow of doubt, the whole work is SO much more satisfying to hear in this way. And surely it’s more in keeping with Schumann’s intention, which was not to write instructional pieces for children, but an adult’s reflection of childhood.

Now much more controversially (oh goody!) let’s consider the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. Yes, we all know this is about how Bach, with astounding ingenuity, restated the same basic idea 64 times without ever repeating himself. But the Chaconne is absolutely not simply a set of variations – and that applies even more to Busoni (in this particular case). Busoni’s Chaconne is not a mere piano arrangement of an original violin solo. Even calling it a transcription belittles it. It’s substantially more than that; in fact, it’s a total reconstruction. The initial basic thought of Bach has been dismantled down to its very essence – and then reassembled in multilayered permutations (64 times), but using the entire resources of a new and foreign instrument of very different capabilities.

Yet how often it is played as nothing but a set of variations, complete with preposterous drama-filled fluctuations of tempo ranging from “profoundly” stately to undignified scramble. Such thoughtlessness utterly destroys the integrity of the massive edifice Busoni constructed.

Andante maestoso, as the score is headed, is hardly a license for extreme “profundity”. Nor does Più vivo at the end provide an excuse to suddenly double or even treble the pulse. It doesn’t help that Busoni plastered throughout the score multiple expressive indications which many students (and so-called great pianists) choose to interpret as grandiose tempo variations. They are not. They are clarifications of where the music is going. In most cases the required shift in emphasis Busoni has already provided with a change in register, dynamics, or note values. Subtle inflections of tempo, to ‘go with the flow’, are surely all he meant.

There is only one pianist I have heard who’s managed to find a unified tempo that serves the entire 64 restatements in all their variety. His name is Konstantin Scherbakov, and when the work is played in that way it takes on a dignity, a majesty, an Almighty-inspired truth. It becomes so powerful that pianist and audience together cannot help but bask in sense of fatherly approval from J.S.Bach himself. Not for nothing has it been said of Scherbakov’s playing “As if there were no other interpretation.” (Frankfurter Allgemeine).  

And wouldn’t we all like that to be said of us! 🙂 
Read other insightful posts by Gil Jetley at 



Guest post: Strange Times

by Tim Johnson

I’ve always been fascinated by music written in unusual rhythms and metres. Right from earliest childhood I was very much a counter, an enthusiast of number, and one of my instinctive reactions to music is to count the beats. So I love those rare times when the beats don’t add up as you expect – in the usual twos, threes, fours, sixes, eights.

Two of the first classical pieces I got to know include movements in quintuple time – Mars (Philharmonia Orchestra – The Planets, Op. 32: 1. Mars, the Bringer of War (Allegro) from Holst’s Planets and the second movement (Herbert von Karajan – Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1987 – Remaster): II. Allegro con grazia) of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony both have five beats to the bar. And I was delighted to discover Dave Brubeck’s smooth, friendly time-bending jazz – Blue Rondo a la Turk (Dave Brubeck – Blue Rondo à la Turk), Take Five (Dave Brubeck – Take Five)

Unsquare Dance (Dave Brubeck – Unsquare Dance[http://open.spotify.com/track)

I think this fascination with number and desire for the dance to be unsquare is at the heart of it, and is something that divides both musicians and listeners, almost as if by brain-wiring. There are composers and songwriters for whom playing around with metre is the most natural thing in the world, and there are those who simply aren’t interested, and go on to write a lifetime of great music in 4/4.

Bela Bartok

And I think that cuts across all types of music. There have certainly been genres and periods in history when complexity with time was fashionable – psychedelia, prog rock and much of the twentieth century in classical music. But that experimentation is mostly about disruption, disorder, complexity, rather than actually setting down a regular rhythm in an unusual metre that is intended to be heard and felt. Though some 20th century composers like Bartók, Stravinsky and Messiaen really did have a taste and a talent for bold funky rhythmic eccentricity, it’s consistently been extremely rare – even in modern classical – to hear a proper tune in say 5, 7 or 11 beats.

In some ways it seems most surprising to find these strange metres in pop music, where we expect technical simplicity. But of course in every genre you find the whole range of human personality, just expressed in different ways. I’m interested in those occasional songs that break the mould and surprise us. We might hear them on the radio, in a shop, in a bar or club; we might even try to dance to them. We might be half-consciously puzzled, we might sort of feel something strange is going on, we might trip over our feet – or we might not even notice. As I said, I think receptiveness to this varies very much between individuals.

So I’ve listed ten songs that are all in one way or another metrically odd, dating from the sixties to the present day. Most of them I consider great songs. Several have had me counting furiously over the years, but having figured them out, I’m always left enjoying the slippery strangeness of their rock, bounce and swing.

1. Golden Brown – The Stranglers [http://www.stranglers.net/]

This mysterious harpsichord-led ballad which reached no. 2 in the charts in 1982 is utterly unique and timeless. The introduction and interludes have a seven-beat off-waltz pattern that contributes to a potent sense of the surreal.

2. Say a Little Prayer – Burt Bacharach [http://bacharachonline.com/]

Originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1967 but now probably better known in the darker version by Aretha Franklin, this song starts off straightforwardly but switches to a puzzling 11 beat pattern in the chorus.

Bacharach had quite a taste for odd metres and phrasing – try also Promises, Promises [Burt Bacharach – Promises, Promises] and the very unstable Anyone Who Had A Heart [Cilla Black – Anyone Who Had A Heart].

3. Here Comes The Sun – The Beatles (George Harrison) [http://www.georgeharrison.com/]

1969 was apparently a difficult year for George: according to wikipedia, he was not only arrested for marijuana possession but also had his tonsils removed. But this song is incomparably sweet, and its unusual rhythms come from an interest in Indian music rather than any dark expression. Bridge passages are in 6/8 + 6/8 + 2/4, and the middle ‘eight’ repeats a twisty  4/4 + 7/8 + 11/8.

4. Money – Pink Floyd [http://www.pinkfloyd.com/]

At the height of prog rock in 1973 quite a few bands were experimenting with time signatures, but this Roger Waters song is unusual for its strikingly bold bass riff in a very clear 7/4 rhythm. (I’ve always assumed this was the inspiration for the Are You Being Served? theme, but I’m not so sure after researching it today.)

5. Everything in its Right Place – Radiohead [http://radiohead.com/]

This song from 1999 is one of many by Radiohead using an unconventional metre – others include Paranoid Android (Radiohead – Paranoid Android) (sections in 7/8), Pyramid Song, Morning Bell [Radiohead – Morning Bell](another very slippery 5/4), 2+2=5 (7/8), Go to Sleep, and 15 Step (a banging 5/4). It features a highly syncopated keyboard riff that divides five beats into slippery semiquaver patterns with a dark dissonant harmony.

For me Radiohead stand out among pop bands for being experimental with a real expressive purpose – not just in rhythm, but also texture and harmony. I wrote a few weeks ago about their taste for the ondes martenot [http://mangofantasy.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/musical-inventions-part-1/].

6. All You Need Is Love – The Beatles (John Lennon) [www.johnlennon.com/]

More Beatles, this time from John Lennon in 1967, with the most famous piece of music ever written in septuple time. John had a habit of dropping and adding beats to mix up the rhythmic flow of his songs – Strawberry Fields Forever, Good Morning, Good Morning, Across the Universe – but in this case there’s a real 7/8 rhythm in the verse sections. This song could just as easily have been written in 4/4, and I wonder if it was a last minute decision to chop off the final half beat to increase the energy.

7. Mission Impossible theme – Lalo Schifrin [http://www.schifrin.com/]

One of the fattest tunes ever written in quintuple time, this has a swagger and perhaps a hint of a broken tango. There’s an virile energy appropriate to its purpose that comes from having to stop and shake your head twice at the end of every bar.

8. American Dream – Jakatta [http://www.zrecords.ltd.uk/artists/Joey+Negro/1]

Although dance music is all about rhythm, and the best producers have spent the last quarter century dividing up time with astonishing innovation and refinement, almost nothing departs from a fundamental 4/4. I guess the reason for this is simply mixing – DJs have to be able to blend one tracks into the next – as you don’t really need 4/4 to dance (at least I don’t). So the best I can find by way of ‘unusual’ metre in dance music is this 2000 track in 6/4 by Dave Lee aka Joey Negro aka Jakatta.

The play of twos and threes against each other is ubiquitous in dance, but American Dream is distinctive in what it does with this. Dance music typically ‘resolves’ rhythmically to phrases of 2, 4 or 8 four-beat bars (e.g. by having a 3 + 3 + 2 pattern). This doesn’t – it is fundamentally triple. I’d be interested to know if this affects how people respond to it on the dancefloor.

9. Living in the Past – Jethro Tull [http://www.j-tull.com/]

Back to the late sixties for one final tune in quintuple time. This is a folky example that uses the same 3+3+2+2 pattern as Mission Impossible. There’s a lot of folk music that plays around with metre, and it’s been hugely influential in classical music.

With music in five I often find myself wondering if it is basically 4/4 plus one, or triple time minus one. The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is definitely a disturbed waltz with a missing beat. A pure quintuple rhythm (if it is possible) would perhaps feel like neither of those things.

10. Moon – Björk [http://bjork.com/]

And finally, right up to the present day with this delicate harp-led track from Biophilia (2011). Many songs on the album use experimental rhythms (and experimental everything), and this one combines 4 and 5 beat bars into phrases of 17, inspired (in none-too-obvious ways) by lunar cycles.

“As the lukewarm hands of the gods
Came down and gently picked my adrenaline pearls”

Does anyone have any other songs to add to the list?!


Tim is a mobile technology specialist living in London who also sings, dances and makes things. He has recently started a blog – mangofantasy.wordpress.com – which explores music, art and more through the prism of his life.

Taking the time

“Never play faster than you can think”

This well-known maxim by pianist, teacher and composer Tobias Matthay has, for me, a relevance both in day-to-day practice, and also in performance. When we practice, in our eagerness to move on to a new section or movement, we may rush ahead without taking the time to fully absorb what we are learning. I am as guilty as the next person of this habit, though I now practice in the way the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter claimed to: I do not turn the page of the score until I have learnt it properly. There is also the habit, particularly among young students, of playing everything too fast without taking the time to think. And how often have we played a piece marked Allegro and taken it at such a lick that the fingers work ahead of the brain and we end up in an unholy muddle?

At the recent EPTA-organised piano day at Steinway Hall, pianist Murray McLachlan talked about allowing the music to “breathe”. This is a perfect analogy, not least because the melodic line in piano music can, and should, be approached as sung line. On a practical level, where a singer might take a breath marks the natural end and beginning of a phrase, but singing also lends shape to music: the human voice has a natural rise and fall and cadence, something we should strive to imitate at the piano. Other physical gestures and body language can also help to enhance both sound and mood: the wistful lifting of the fingers off the keyboard to allow the music to float around the room; the speed and angle of attack and lift off, to suggest different moods; differentiation between the various “layers” of sound/melodic line within a piece; “implied dynamics” rather than actual volume of sound (for example, a fortissimo marking in Schubert or Chopin can be suggestive rather than actual).

In his book The Craft of Piano Playing, pianist and professor Alan Fraser talks about ‘entasis’ in music, the careful distortion of pulse, melodic shape or harmonic colour to enhance innate musical content. The term, derived from architectural language, means a slightly convex curve given to a column, pier or similar structure to correct the illusion of concavity created by a straight shaft. ‘Aural entasis’, Fraser says, can, just as in architecture, create the illusion of greater lengthening or shortening, thus highlighting the contours of the music, and should suffuse every bar we play (note: not to be confused with Rubato, which is a more deliberate action in music). At the simplest level, this can be the increase in dynamic level as the music ascends the register, and a softening the lower the music descends. It can also refer to rhythmic elements, such as waiting an instant longer before sounding a syncopation, or the shortening of the first part of a dotted rhythm to increase vitality, emphasis and drama (something I have been working on in the opening measures of Bach’s Toccata from the 6th Partita). Waiting a microsecond longer before playing the next note in a sequence offers a wonderful sense of delayed gratification to the listener, especially if combined with ambiguous harmonic shifts, such as in Chopin’s First Ballade, or at the end of the Opus 62 Nocturnes, which have the most mezmerising harmonies. No two beats will ever last exactly the same amount of time: only a metronome has this exacting regularity, and music that is played with such a rigid pulse will never sound natural.

It is hard to teach such subtle elements as these, which are often very personal to the individual performer, but a good performer will employ ‘entasis’ almost unconsciously, thus giving the music its human, ‘speaking’ quality, an innate sense of an inner pulse, and natural colour and shaping. Music which lacks these qualities can sound static, flat and dull, no matter how well it is played technically, and audiences will soon lose interest because mechanical music lacks a spiritual quality: as Aristotle observed “sameness of incident soon produces satiety” (Poetics XXIV). Mistakes, even very small slips or smudges, can also be far more obvious in music that is played without ‘entasis’, and the requirement to play with extreme accuracy, both of pitch and metre, is the cause of much performance anxiety amongst musicians.

Of course, too much ‘entasis’ may produce chaos in music, which listeners can find confusing and uncomfortable. To achieve a natural sense of pulse in music, drill the piece with the metronome until it is almost too fast, and then allow it to relax as you sense its metre from within, as you might your own heartbeat. The musical beat must fluctuate according to the emotional content of the music – just as the human heartbeat fluctuates at times of stress, excitement, contentment or relaxation. Remember, true musical perfection is in the soul of the listener, rather than in the performer’s ability to produce a performance in which each and every note is metrically and pitch perfect. ‘Entasis’ can be seen as the balance between a feeling of predictability and one of uncertainty, and this is what gives music its sense of anticipation, delayed gratification, excitement and ‘musical thought’.

Evgeny Kissin playing Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, Op 23

Alan Fraser’s website