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    Is No One Teaching Rhythm and Meter?

    The program for last month's conference on "Teaching Music Theory in the Twentieth Century" suggests that zero of the sixty-five papers and posters concerned the teaching of musical meter or rhythm. The evidence from the program for the 2017 conference  of the same name is slightly different: zero of the papers and one of the posters had that focus. Give the efflorescence of metric research in the last 40 years, among music theorists, perceptual psychologists, and neuroscientists,  there must be something there that might be useful for young musicians to learn about! I'll go further, and suggest that teaching them that something might be appreciated by our colleagues in composition, classical performance, jazz, and world music. I'd be interested in any thoughts about why this centuries-long absence continues unabated. --Rick Cohn



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    • 13 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Rick -- Thank you for bringing this up. I agree with you entirely. In our global musical world, we must return to a more comprehensive study of rhythm in our curricula, for the sake of our students. I am teaching a summer course on theory and history of musics of the Americas to non-majors, and it was obvious from the beginning why rhythm must be front and center. Understanding rhythm well (in the largest musical sense) is essential to any and every music.
    • Hello Rick, 

      As a member of the Program Committee for Pedagogy Into Practice (Teaching Music in the Twenty-FIRST Century), I can tell you that many of the papers, in fact, DID address this topic--either directly or under the umbrella of of other skills (e.g., melodic dictation)--even if the paper titles do not state it explicitly. If you see this as a blind spot in current Theory Pedagogy trends, I invite you to submit a proposal and attend our next conference in 2021. 

      Best Wishes,

      Jena Root

    • Space will have to be made for rhythm study in the undergraduate degree program, as part (I would think) of the theory sequence. For an example of what is possible, see the rhythm pedagogy of composer Jacob Adler whose been successfully teaching advanced methods at Arizona State University.

    • (1) I recently taught a graduate course entitled "It's About Time" that used the London and Peter Petersen (a German scholar) as textbooks with lots of technical articles supplementing. A student in the class, Mathew Stanley, gave a paper on the Brahms G major Vln. sonata (all mvts) detailing metrical-temporal strategies. It was given at West Coast if memory serves. My Intro to Schenkerian Theory and Analysis also features the Schachter, and Rothstein essays. Your essays featured in both classes. In my theory pedagogy class, I supplement our readings with temporal observations. (2) Perhaps of importance is the insufficient attention in lower div. theory classes. Teaching two part species as a basis for temporal thought in much Western music is overlooked from this viewpoint much less other kinds of music. (3) For those of us teaching at the graduate level, it is incumbent that we support such thinking and experiences for our grad students. That will filter down in their teaching and perhaps their research. (4) Narrowly focusing on "meter and rhythm" may limit our understanding of temporality in music. We must lead.--Rick Hermann

    • Rick,

      I am guessing the poster you referred to was Trevor deClerq's, which had a reference to meter in the title. I don't know if you noticed it, but my poster at the Pedagogy in Practice Conference in 2017 engaged rhythmic and metrical topics in conjunction with world music (Andean folklorico).   You can read the article that came from my poster in the Norton Guide to Teaching Music Theory (2018) edited by Rachel Lumsden and Jeffrey Swinkin. 

      What I noticed about the conference both years was the near-total lack of World Music papers and posters--mine from 2017 has been the only one engaging world music in other than a passing reference that I know of (I am sure people will correct me if I am wrong--there were double sessions and I could not attend every presentation).  Additional coverage of world music topics likely would result in more addressing of temporal features.  As Jenna Root says in her post, if you would like to see more coverage of particular topics, send in a proposal for Pedagogy in Practice 2021, and encourage others who do work in related areas of music theory that cross over into pedagogy to do the same.  It was an excellent conference (both years!), and is well worth attending and participating. 

      Jane Clendinning

      Florida State University


    • @Jane Clendinning - I don't teach world music in the one class I teach (only adjuncting on the side) because frankly I never got exposed to it in my 10 years of music education and don't feel comfortable talking about it. It's systemic.

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • Hi Rick,

      At the risk of coming across as defensive or incendiary (please understand, I'm really not coming from places like that at all), I wonder what new pedagogical insight on rhythm or meter you could provide . . .  especially at the indergraduate level? Or: why do you suppose the concept is so absent from the titles of pedagogical talks and articles? 


    • I’d like to draw attention to Brian Alegant’s presentation on “How to teach complex rhythms” in the undergraduate musicianship curriculum, to be presented at our conference Rhythm in Music since 1900 (Nov. 17-18, 2019, Boulder, CO). The abstract for Brian's presentation can be found at the tab “Invited Presentations.”

    • In response to Keith's two short questions:

      1. What to teach, based on research in music theory and research psychology:

      (a) A new definition of meter. The current consensus definition, "a regular pattern grouping strong and weak beats," has not been changed for 250 years; it was adapted from the definition of the poetic verse foot in Ancient Greece (a regular pattern group long and short syllables). In eight words, it advances five claims or implications that  are false or confusing:  (1) there is only one level of beat (2) there are two kinds of beats,  strong and weak (how does the third beat in common time fit that absolute binary?)  (3) "strength" is a literal attribute of beats, rather than a metaphor for an emergent property situated in the human mind rather than directly in the musical sound; (4) isochrony is literal rather than quantized in the mind; (5) "groups" of beats (measures) are necessarily co-extensive with groups of notes, such as measure-long phrase segments.    

      Researchers since Yeston (1976) have defined meter with reference to inclusion relations among two or more pulses, first having defined pulse as something like  "a categorically isochronous series of time points" (some prefer "spans" to "points"). This definition avoids all five false or confusing implications. 

      (b) A new classification system for meters. The 17th-century classification system (simple/compound x duple/triple/quadruple) classifies meter signatures, not experienced meters.  Metric researchers have introduced better systems for classifying meter as heard and experienced, for example using dot arrays (Lerdahl & Jackendoff). 

      (c)  The distinction between measures and phrase-units.

      Show students (following Temperley) how classical composers change the phase at the end of the exposition, or how oodles of pop songs adjust the phase in the transition from verse to the chorus. Invite students to find pieces where meter and phrase-units  are  in phase, out of phase, acutely out of phase.

      (d) Ask students to locate and classify metric dissonances in Beethoven or Schumann or Brahms, using Krebs's taxonomy, Leong's syncopation spiral, my ski hill graphs for hemiolas, or some other system of representation that researchers use.

      (e) it wouldn't hurt to spend 15 minutes talking about the neurobiology of entrainment (summarized in London's book), so they have a chance to think about why we are wired for meter from the moment of our birth. 

      None of this is difficult. The only difficulty  is that some students are reluctant to unlearn what they have been taught to think that meter is. But challenging students to rethink what they believe they already know is a central part of our job descriptions. 

      2. Why do I think there's so little attention to meter in textbooks and curricula? I have some speculations in my 2015 Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy paper, "Why we Don't Teach Meter and Why we Should."


      My current thought is that there is only one chapter devoted to it in most textbooks. Much of that chapter  is devoted to  remedial work on rudimentary metric notation. The metric theory in the remainder of the chapter is archaic. I suspect that, as students,  we were all rather bored by that week of undergraduate theory, and  we'd rather teach what interests us. 

      It would also help if a course in metric research were a mandatory component of a Masters-Level curriculum in music theory. 

      -Rick Cohn

    • I'm not entirely certain that the old definition of meter ("a regular pattern grouping strong and weak beats") IS the consensus definition anymore. I would be interested in the results of a survey indicating how many undergraduate theory teachers (not textbooks, which seem to me to lag behind pedagogical trends in the field) rely on the old definition and how many of us base our teaching on the newer conception of the interaction between multiple levels of pulse; I suspect there are more of us in the latter camp than one might fear.

      More pedagogical ideas to delve into rhythm and meter, of course, are always appreciated--I'm sure I'm not the only theorist too busy with everything else I'm already doing to come up with innovations in this area. I am working on incorporating some great ideas at recent pedagogy portions of conferences (i.e., the SMT interest group meeting and the Pedagogy into Practice conference) ranging from creating the most/least grooviest pattern using a virtual drum machine to plotting out the rhythm of rap songs. Hopefully useful pedagogical ideas continue to be presented at these venues and published in JMTP!

      Nathan Baker

      Music Theory Coordinator, Casper College, WY



    • As a follow-up to my previous comment: this year while introducing the freshmen to rhythm and meter I used Rick's idea of discussing what makes a beat groove (including listening to groovy and ungroovy songs picked by myself and the students) and then having the students compete to create the most and least groovy beats using an online drum machine. Hands-down the best introduction to the topic I've ever experienced! Thanks for continuing to push us to think more deeply about a topic that we often take for granted, Rick!

      Nathan Baker

      Music Theory Coordinator, Casper College, WY



    • Rick,

      Thanks for posting this: It's an excellent question, one I have also been thinking about for a while. I have been teaching rhythmic theory in 20th-century music courses for the past seven years or so, and, besides specialized seminars (music perception and cognition, music and time), which don't exactly count here, I'm currently incorporating it into an advanced tonal theory course, along very much the lines you suggest in your comment. My insight into this question comes just from my experience in doing this, and that is that it is something I had to figure out on my own how to do, without help from textbooks, only what I know about rhythm from scholarly research. That is, it is a challenge to incorporate rhythm into the basic theory courses because we have yet to really figure out methods of "pedagogizing" it, and we already have so much handily pedagogized material on harmony (RN analysis, chorale writing, model composition, pitch-class set theory, serialism) that we can easily fill up the (sometimes small) theory sequences we have with stuff we already know very well how to teach. To add in some real rhythm theory, we have to discard some of this material, figure out what to teach about rhythm and how to teach it, and in the process rethink the whole purpose of core theory, which is something I think we are very reluctant to do. We already have a kind of assumed role to fill in the basic curriculum of a music major, and maybe there is something a bit threatening about questioning what its purpose is. But you can't really redefine a curriculum without doing that, and when it's one that has not changed a lot in a hundred years, that seems a little daunting and maybe ill-advised. 

      To add on to that a little bit, I think the transfer of scholarly research into pedagogical material -- stuff you can teach in the limited format of a class, and evaluate in some way -- is not at all a trivial task. My own teaching of rhythm in 20th-century courses has evolved quite a bit from year to year, to balance the requirements of pedagogy with the desire to teach something that is as valuable and widely applicable as possible for students who are in most cases performers or composers. 

      --Jason Yust


    • As a follow-up to this discussion, I have been reading through Matthew Santa's new text Hearing Rhythm and Meter (Routledge) and am finding it to be a well-organized and accessible introduction to an examination of the concepts of meter, hypermeter, form, etc. I may well end up adapting it into an extended unit on these topics in the undergraduate sequence; if I do, I will happily report back on how it ends up going.

      Nathan Baker

      Music Theory Coordinator, Casper College, WY