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Meter - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
Instead of saying anything meaningful about my personal life, it's time for another musical post! This one is about meter. Meter, in music, represents how the rhythm is divided. For those without a musical background, bear with me; I'm not going to go into musical jargon like "time signatures" or anything. (And besides, 1873's handwriting is terrible.)

The meter of a song doesn't have to stay constant. It can change, go back and forth between different rhythms, or even be completely choatic, as Igor Stravinsky did in part of The Rite of Spring. Now imagine you're Vaslav Nijinsky, in charge of making the world-famous Russian Ballet troupe dance to this (in a non-traditional manner). At its first performance in 1913, this was enough to start a riot.

Most modern popular music has a comforting meter of 4. That is, if you tap your finger with a constant beat while listening to a song, you'll notice that the rhythmical patterns repeat every 4 taps, or by some multiple of 4 - every 8, 12 or 16 taps, and so on. Tap these two clips out with four fingers, and you'll see what I mean:
The Beatles - When I'm sixty-four,
and some modern trance.

3 is probably the next most popular meter, although you don't hear it as much these days. It's the meter of the waltz (ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three). It's also the meter of the theme from A Summer Place. I apologize for using that clip - nothing else immediately came to mind when I was putting this post together.

Here's an unusual 9 meter clip, Asparagus, by a Quebec band called Holding Pattern. One could argue that this is also a 3 meter piece, with the three beats subdivided further by three, but that starts to get too technical for this post.

I must admit some help in finding this one, thanks to Wikipedia's list of musical works in unusual time signatures. The Beatles' All you need is love uses a meter of 7 for a couple of lines in each verse, then switches to a more regular meter.

Music with a meter of 5 pops up in quite a number of places. If you're still doing the finger-tapping thing to follow along, this section is a bit more challenging.

One 5-meter piece that will be familiar to most people is Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and yes, the naming of the song is deliberate. The jazz saxophone's melody takes more than five beats to resolve itself, but it works within the structure of the music. Another piece that also does 5-meter with a saxophonist can be found in the Japanese film Marusa no onna.

Too obscure, you say? Okay, how about the Orc theme from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. This is what's known as a "leitmotif", a recurring suggestive musical theme. When watching the films, each time you hear this, you're supposed to think, "Uh-oh, orcs!" The unusual meter of 5 was chosen on purpose to emphasize that the orcs are evil, uncouth barbarians.

As a final example of this meter, I give you Lalo Schifrin's theme to Mission: Impossible. (This guy also worked a lot on Alfred Hitchcock's movie soundtracks.) When the 1996 film adaptation of Mission: Impossible came out, the producers hired two of the guys from U2 to remix the theme. Of course they switched it back to a meter of 4, because you can't expect people in nightclubs to dance to something with a meter of 5, can you?

And now, a bit of fun.
See if you can figure out the meter(s) of The Last Great Waltz (3:19), as performed by the Smothers Brothers. Or don't. It's a fun, silly song to listen to without having to deconstruct the rhythm.

In Conclusion:
I hope you gained something from this post that will utterly fail as an interesting topic of conversation at parties. But what are the true lessons we've learned?

  1. It's spelled metre, dammit.
  2. Never try to imagine you're Vaslav Nijinsky.
  3. If ballet dancers can dance to The Rite of Spring, it's possible for half-drunk people to dance to the original beat of the Mission: Impossible theme.
  4. Jazz saxophonists are evil, uncouth barbarians.

Current Mood: beat

4 comments or Leave a comment
mr_sharkey From: mr_sharkey Date: January 14th, 2007 02:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
What about ones and twos?

mr_sharkey From: mr_sharkey Date: January 14th, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
(hint: a metre of one sounds like my life)

dronon From: dronon Date: January 14th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
"O Superman..."
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 16th, 2007 03:00 am (UTC) (Link)

Hello I'm Rags. Woof, woof, woof.

(Smarry here. Gah, I need to set up an OpenID server or something.)

Thanks for the sound samples, I'll have to listen and comment later!

Rush is semi-infamous for using weird time signatures. Only a few of their songs are in 4/4 time.

Another famous piece in 5/4 time is "Mars, the Bringer of War" from Gustav Holst's The Planets.

I went to see a choir/organ performance on Manitoulin island that included a wedding processional written by some nutty organist (for his own wedding) that was in 13/11 time or something insane like that. It sounded like you'd expect; you were always getting tripped up listening to it.
4 comments or Leave a comment