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Musical Rhythm

polymeter, overall meaning, Musical Rhythm, Musical form, common denominator

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Musical Rhythm, all aspects of music concerned with its motion through time and, thus, with its time structure. In addition to this overall meaning, the term rhythm is occasionally used to refer to specific time events, such as the patterns of lengths in a certain group of notes. In this article, individual technical terms are used for these more restricted meanings.

Larger Time Units

Just as beats are grouped into measures, measures are themselves grouped into larger units. Such groupings produce the more extended segments of time that determine the form of the music. A motive (the shortest melodic idea that forms a relatively complete musical unit) may consist of more than one measure. One or more motives may be repeated and varied to form a phrase (a yet larger unit with a still more definite sense of ending, corresponding roughly to a sentence in language). Phrases are combined to produce sections, and sections are combined to produce entire compositions. Musical form is shaped by the relationships among these various time units and also by the relationship of these units to the whole; form in music is thus basically rhythmic in nature.

20th-Century Trends

In the 20th century various composers tried to break away from what they considered the overly regular quality of metered music. One way was to alter the lengths of measures, creating a kind of variable meter. Thus, a series of four measures might have time signatures of 3/8, 4/8, 2/8, and 5/8. The only common denominator is the eighth-note of the pulse itself, which is added to produce a series of irregular larger groupings: 3 + 4 + 2 + 5. Another technique is polymeter, the simultaneous use of different meters in different parts. A more extreme approach, found in some music after about 1950, avoids meter entirely. Performers are allowed to fit a certain number of notes within a given time span (such as 10 seconds) at will, without following rules for exact coordination or measurement of the durations.


Morgan, Robert P., Ph.D.

Professor of Music, Yale University. Author of "Twentieth Century Music".

Article key phrases:

polymeter, overall meaning, Musical Rhythm, Musical form, common denominator, following rules, durations, motives, groupings, signatures, beats, pulse, nature, measurement, language, Phrases, sentence, motion, technique, article, addition, relationships, Performers, measures, way, sections

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