Fiddle Rhythm and Math

Rhythm, Math and Fiddling

“Musicians only have to count to four,” is an old joke I’ve heard and quoted to my students. The part that’s not true is when we count bars of rest in a symphonic performance. To be able to count 17 bars, or 26 and come in at precisely the right time is a skill much appreciated by conductors.

The truth of that saying is the topic of this month’s newsletter. We are looking at the significance of four numbers in musical rhythm: 1,2,3 and 4.

One is the beat. Take a drum and hit it to produce a boom. That’s a beat, the unit of musical rhythm. But, hitting the drum just one time does not create rhythm. It creates the expectancy of rhythm.

You have to hit the drum two times to create rhythm. The interval of time between the hits is immediately extended by implication in the mind. Regular rhythmic pulse is implied by two hits.

If you were to rest for two of these pulse moments and come back with another tap-tap at the same time interval, the result would be completely logical. It would seem the inevitable extension and implication of the first two taps.

Rhythm falls into only two categories: duple and triple: a rhythm of two or of three pulsations.

Jeels and Rigs

Examples of two, for us fiddlers, are hoedowns, breakdowns and reels. Three would be a jig or a waltz.

There is a distinction between three as a subdivision of the beat, as in a jig, and three as the repeating rhythmic cycle, as in a waltz. The context framing the two or three has a say about whether the tune is a triple or duple meter.

Waltzes have a beat that is subdivided into two. If a three count dance tune was subdivided into three, it would sound like a slip jig.

The most common subdivision for American fiddle music is four. (That’s 2 X 2, so it counts as duple meter.) Four sixteenth notes in a quarter note is the familiar heritage of Western European music. This is typical of reels and hoedowns.

Four, and multiples of four, is also controlling for the number of beats in a bar, the number of bars in a phrase, the number of parts in a tune. Tunes that deviate from this format are in the minority. Often they are interesting for being different.

Written Rhythm

In writing tab charts, I use a visual representation of the duple. The standard bar has four single line down strokes under the fingering, or eight double lines. The double lines are connected by horizontal line called a beam. Sometimes four such double lines are connected.

This representation is a convenience of economy in writing, and is easier for beginners to understand. It echoes a convention of standard music notation called “cut time.” In cut time a half note gets one beat and is subdivided into four eighth notes.

The more accurate way of indicating rhythmic subdivision in standard notation is to subdivide a quarter note into four sixteenths. You will see that in fiddle tab also if you pick up Beginning Old Time Fiddle. In The Fiddlers’ Fake Book you will find both conventions: sometimes four notes are beamed with one line, sometimes with two. I cannot detect any rule governing the choice. That’s just the way it is. The Phillips Collection of Traditional American Fiddle Tunes goes with the single line beaming four notes.

For beginners, playing these tunes very slowly, often less than 50 metronome clicks per minute for the real beat, having just two notes beamed helps to lay out the visual map. And the metronome can be set to about 80 for an easy pace to play two notes per click instead of four.

When you play a jig you notice that rolling triplet feel. It’s so different from the duple feel of a reel. Some players delight in shifting a tune from a jig to a reel as a novelty. The difference in feel is immediately apparent.

We’ve looked at the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 in thinking about rhythm. Almost any other number can be seen as a composite of those four.

One last observation about swing feel and straight eighths. Swing feel means subdividing the beat in three instead of two–as in straight eighths. But, the swing feel of a Texas breakdown is more subtle. Either it is not constant, or is fudging between straight eighths and swing.

Similarly, a hornpipe, when played in the traditional way has a subdivision of three. And yet, it sounds nothing like a jig! In my opinion the internal three of the beat is squared off a little, except where it is noted out by different notes. Think of Harvest Home Hornpipe. It bustles along almost like a slow real, then bang, here comes that descending triplet scale that characterizes it. That’s a good example of what I hear in hornpipes.

Many hornpipes have completely lost their swing. Sailors, for example. is played too up tempo to allow time to swing the beat.