Tag: Rhythm

Two Shorter Blogs: 1. Two Types of Staccato  2.  Playing a “Vamp” to Bring Out the Rhythms of a Piece


There are two basic types of staccato depending on how the pianist executes it physically.

In one type, the physical action that is used to push down the key contains within it the action that in a moment will release the key.  Sort of a “follow through”.

In the other type, instead of basically one action, as in the above case,  there are three different actions: pushing the note down; holding it down even if for a very brief time; and releasing the key.

In the first type the release lies inside the attack.  The initial motion telegraphs the release.   In the second type there is a neutral body posture in between the attack and the release.  The effect of these staccatos on the sound of the phrase is very different.

Generally, staccato does not imply any specific ratio of duration of silence to sound, but covers all cases from the shortest of staccatos, bordering on being unheard or unnoticed, and one that is just shy of being played détaché.   Regardless of these variations in the length of the staccato, it can be executed is such a way as to fall into either of the two types above.

A ‘long’ staccato can be of the first type.   All it means is that the downward motion, while transitioning to upward motion, gets stuck for a while; gets absorbed into the key, before the finger can get away.  But, when the finger does get away from key, it is still a component of the overall motion begun when the note began.

Human consciousness is capable of awareness down to very small durations of time.   Thus a ‘short’ staccato can be of the second type.  All this means is that, pauses in a neutral, inactive position, for a very small fraction of a second.  During this moment, all sense of motion recedes over the mental horizon, so that the release, when it comes, has nothing to do with the attack.

#2.  “Vamping” to bring out the rhythm and pulse of a piece

I’m thinking of the vamps played by the pianists or pit orchestras for old-time vaudeville shows.   A singer is waiting in the wings to come on stage.  There is introductory music that is meant to accompany her while she walks out on stage.  The vamp is obvious and blatant in nature, with a very stressed rhythm.  It recycles for a while until the singer is ready to sing the first note.   At this point the vamp morphs into the proper accompaniment for the song.

Often I will sit at the second piano and play a vamp while the student is playing their piece.   It almost seems as if I were trying to turn the piece into something obvious like a Sousa march, like a German oom-pah band.  I’m yanking out of the inside the underlying pulse, the meter, the chords, and depositing them onto the outside of the piece.

The general effect of this procedure is that the student becomes more aware of some of the most basic qualities of the piece they are playing, by hearing them emphasized in an accompaniment into which they have no choice but fit their performance.   The playing transforms itself so as harmonize and “get along” with the vamp.  If effective, when my vamp ceases, the student continues playing in a very alive fashion.  Once the outside of the piece is enlivened and comes to life, the more subtle aesthetic effects of the piece can be relied on to come into focus.

Sometimes I will take a vamp that is based on one chord alone, and play it continuously and unchanged as the student’ plays through his piece.  Why do this, when there will be many places in the piece where the vamp does not conform harmonically to what the student is playing?  Because that makes the pulse and rhythm stand out even more obviously (as the harmony clashes with piece).

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Where Does Sound Come From?

Stranded on a dessert island.

Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands.  Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.

From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing.  We assume she hears it; but cannot see it.   For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird.  For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.

Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird.  There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight.  There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.

If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”

At this moment, a miracle occurs.

Our subject can now see.  One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing.  Thus at this point  there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.

Some scientists now enter the scene.

They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures.  Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing.  She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.

This request perplexes her.  She cannot even understand the general form of the question.  At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her.  She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other.   While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.

She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another.  This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses.  If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.

Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect.  And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.

She expostulates.

“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it?  That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.

When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word  ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other.  And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur.   Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds.  Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’  That sounds like an enchanter’s spell.  My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause.  Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”

At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head?  I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.”  The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”

She comes to her “senses”.

She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity  to exist.

During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird.  This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound.  She knows this much more because of time rather than space.  The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.

This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.

As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall.  It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.

Here’s the first important point.  Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.

The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound?  I say no.  Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight.  And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*

For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.

* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next.  For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall.  For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone.  But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.


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The printed score and its limitations

A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne

He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation.   In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.”  Here are some of the issues we encountered.

Issue 1:

Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand.  This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down.  We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.

Issue 2:

The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note.  If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.

Issue 3:

In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note.  The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes.  The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do.  As a result we may find it harder than usual to  play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.

Issue 4:

The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.

Issue 5:

Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices.  This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room.  The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.

One can adduce many more such examples.

In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page.  That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is.  Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.

We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.

In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page.  And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort.  He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece.  But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities.  Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.

Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms.  It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag.  The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes.  They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm.  The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.

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Rhythmic coordination between the hands in sight reading

At a recent lesson, Irving* tried to sight read from “For Children” by Bartok, and experienced difficulty keeping the two hands coordinated rhythmically.

Isolating rhythm from pitch:

We tried to isolate rhythm from pitch so he could focus more entirely on the former.  This is similar to what happens in mathematics when all but one of the variables are held constant, while focus is concentrated on the remaining one which is still free to vary.

This is the particular procedure we used at his lesson:

We closed the fall board so it could act like a drum surface.  Then we tapped out the right hand rhythm with the right hand, then the left hand rhythm with the left hand, and then the two together.  This separated the rhythm from the pitches.  This step had the extra benefit of making him aware of how much of his reading difficulties were rhythmic in nature, both in one hand, and regarding rhythmic coordination between the hands.

Then, with the fall board open, he played the actual left hand.  Then he did that again but added his right hand, focusing on rhythm by playing only one constant pitch as a universal place holder for all the different written pitches.

We then reversed things.  He played the right hand as written, and played just a single pitch in the bass at the moments the left hand was expected to play.

Doing these things made sight reading the piece easier for him.

*Name has been changed

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How to play 3 in one hand against 2 in the other

This is a brief technical manual for coping with the rhythmic situation known as “three against two.”  One encounters this situation when one hand is subdividing a pulse into three equal parts while the other hand is subdividing the same pulse into two equal parts.

I want to break the problem down into a short series of small, doable steps.

We start by taking the two rhythms (triplet and duplet) and superimposing them one upon the other, and derive a single composite rhythm.  Once we have it in the form of a composite rhythm, there is no longer anything special required to address the coordination of one hand with the other.  Once we see 3 against 2 as a single rhythm, it looses all its strangeness, and becomes a very simple rhythm to execute.


One way to write it is: a quarter note – eighth note – eighth note – quarter note.  It does not matter if these note values are different than those in the score.  Any note values would serve the same purpose as long as their durations stand in the following comparative ratio: 2 : 1 : 1 : 2.  Half  -Quarter  – Quarter – Half, or Eighth – Sixteenth – Sixteenth – Eighth ,would do as well.

We no longer have to concern ourselves with the difference in the duration of a triplet versus a duplet.  It is all homogenized in the combined rhythm.

This, then is the composite rhythm of a 3 against 2:

|| quarter – eighth – eighth – quarter ||

|| means a bar line.  We assume the meter to be 3/4 time,

First, let us consider the situation where the 3 (or triplet) is in the right hand and the 2 (or duplet) is in the left hand.


Step 1:

|| quarter – eighth – eighth – quarter  ||

Using both hands at once, tap or play this rhythm (quarter eight eighth quarter) over and over in an endless loop*.  You can keep the hands a foot or two apart as you do this.  Each time you reach the end of the measure recycle, without a pause, to the beginning of the measure.  And continuing in this fashion, doing the measure over and over.  Do it enough times for it to feel completely natural and automatic in the hands.

What to tap on:

You can tap it on the closed fall board at two separated places, or always playing the C below middle C with the left hand and Middle C with the right hand.  Or on two drums, or on your lap, or anything else handy.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and add these spoken words to the notes:

|| quarter  eighth eighth quarter || quarter …. <-Play *

|| together  right   left   right”   || together … <- Say

* each note with both hands

Step 3:

Repeat step 1 and 2 with this revision.  The four notes in the composite rhythm are not all played with both hands.

(the rhythm):

|| quarter  eighth eighth  quarter  || quarter ….   || together  right   left       right       || together …

(which hand(s))

here is another description of step 3:

play the first note in both hands and say  “together”

play the second note in just the right hand and say  “right”

play the third note in just the left hand and say  “left”

play the fourth note in just the right hand and say “right”

start the pattern again with “together”

just make sure to stay with the same rhythm: quarter eighth eighth quarter.

Step 4:

4A  for the right hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘right’ and only at those times when the right hand is due to play.

|| quarter    eighth   eighth  quarter  || quarter ….    <= play

|| right         right                     right       || right     ….    <= say

4B  for the left hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘left’ and only at those times when the left hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter .

|| left                          left                         || left ….     <= say

Let us now consider the situation where the 3 is in the left hand and the 2 is in the right hand.


Step 1:

Step 1 is the same as before.  Using both hands at once tap or play this rhythm (quarter eight eighth quarter) over and over in an endless loop.  At the end of each measure of 3/4 go back (without a pause) to the beginning of the measure.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and add these spoken words to the notes:

|| quarter    eighth eighth quarter || quarter ….   <= Play

|| together  left     right    left        || together …   <= Say this

Step 3:

Repeat step 1 and 2 with this revision.  The four notes in the composite rhythm are not all played with both hands.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= rhythm

|| both left  right left ||  both … <= which hand

here is another description of step 3:

play the    first note  in both hands  and say  “together”

play the    second note  in just the left hand    and say  left”

play the    third note     in just the right hand  and say right”

play the   fourth note    in just the left hand    and say  “left”

start the pattern again with “together”

Once again, just make sure to stay with the same rhythm: quarter-eighth-eighth-quarter.

Step 4:

4A  for the right hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘right’ and only at those times when the right hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= play this rhythm

|| right                       right                      || right ….    <= say

4B  for the left hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘left’ and only at those times when the left hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= play this rhythm

|| left           left                       left         || left ….     <= say

Have fun. Start slowly until the muscular and vocal habits have had a chance to set in.

I would love some feedback.  For instance,

1) is this technique too complicated to follow

2) does this technique help put the 3 against 2 issue in a clearer light

3) A: didn’t help much. B: helped slightly C: made a difference

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  1. Joe – how do you feel about using a saying/ phrase to learn 3 against 2? I learned it in Sightsinging class as “Nice cup of tea” for 3 against two, where you say that as you tap. The three (nice, cup, tea) is in the right hand, and two is in the left hand (nice, of). It helps to start saying the phrase slowly in rhythm (the one you outlined)
    Then for 2 against 3, we had “Pass the butter” where two is in the left hand (Pass, but-) and three is in the right hand (Pass, the, -ter).
    Does that make sense, or is there any reason that is a bad method to use?

    Joe: It makes perfect sense. Whatever ‘works’ is a ‘good method’.