This post is the second in a series on elements of , this time focusing on melodic rhythm. The first post covered some aspects of melodic shape, using Section B of Canaro’s song, “Quiero verte una vez más”, as an example of clever and effective shaping of melodies.
Melodic rhythm is so vast in scope and importance a single post cannot claim any kind of comprehensiveness. (That applies to melodic shape too). My plan is to describe what melodic rhythm is, what the elements are, how they are organized, and to what effect. In subsequent posts I’ll do that and provide numerous examples from the tango repertoire. Then I’ll write Part II, summarizing the concepts.
Today I focus on hearing the melodic rhythms used in one specific melody, independently of its pitches.
Many people have probably never studied or considered melodic rhythm independent from melodic pitch. The two are interrelated and connected, of course. But not equally. Melody cannot exist without rhythm. Rhythm can exist without melody, specifically without pitch (un-pitched percussion instruments, for example). We can isolate the rhythmic component of melody and form some conclusions about it.
A Rhythm Exercise
Part of a musician’s ear training involves clapping back rhythms played by the teacher, without pitch or music notation; sounds only. I thought it might be fun for those of you who have never done this to give it a try. The examples do not provide the , recognizing it is part of the exercise.
The exercise splits up an actual tango’s 4 bar phrase into its component rhythmic patterns. There are 2 distinct ones, and when these patterns are played one after the other they form a 2 bar phrase. The 2 bar phrase is repeated almost exactly.
(I’d like to provide a few more and varied melodic rhythms, but it just takes too long to set them up. I decided to use a fairly simple grouping as an introduction to hearing melodic rhythm. You are free to take your favourite tango/milonga/vals and do the exercise with it. Better yet, try something unfamiliar.)
Feel how the rhythms have a sense of direction and purpose, and how they have an inherent question/answer or statement/response quality, even without melody, harmony or other phrasing.
Exercise Procedure. For each rhythm do the following:
1) Play the rhythm and listen, focusing on the sound patterns.
2) Tap or, clap, it back from memory. Try to clap the rhythm without playing the audio clip again (or taking a look at the music). If you can’t clap the rhythm back at first, then clap along with the audio a few times until the rhythm is in your head and you can clap it correctly from memory, unaided.
The 4 bar phrase begins with two rhythmic patterns, covering 2 bars.
Do you hear and feel the connectedness these patterns have? There is a distinct statement/response quality in them.
Pattern 1 begins with a series of five sounds with identical length, then two longer notes, having twice the length of the first five: movement then pause, or brief respite.
Pattern 2 likewise starts with fast notes, but this time there are no slower notes, only six fast ones. There is no sense of pause here, only movement with an abrupt end: a feeling of being left hanging, without conclusion.
The next pair of rhythms is almost identical. Play and tap back these rhythms and see if you can identify where the difference is.
Pattern 1, repeated.
Pattern 2, repeated.
The only difference is how this Pattern 2 version ends: instead of two notes there is one.
Notice the two rhythmic components, how they alternate and lead/follow, Q/A each other. And how the slight change in the repeated Pattern 2, just one note less, creates a sensation of completeness, and the end of a musical idea.
The Tango Revealed
The 4 bar phrase is the start of Malena.
Play it, either using the “Audio only” controls or the syncd. music/audio. (close the “synchronized audio/video window first). Clap with the melody and you will discover the 4 bar rhythmic pattern, with its two 2 bar components, repeats throughout the entire first . Rhythmically, the melody in Section A, all 20 bars of it, is built on just two rhythmic patterns, alternating and repeating over and over again. Rhythmic repetition leads to co-coherence and unity. And to predictability and boredom if not enhanced by other melodic or accompaniment components, which Malena has in abundance.
Melodies are a succession of notes moving through time, one at a time. Melody is the proper term for what some some call the "tune".
Melodic shape and melodic rhythm are two factors every melody uses in some way. Melodic shape is the general direction the melody moves in terms of pitch: up, down, sideways. Melodic rhythm is the rhythm(s) applied to the pitches.
Many other elements fall within these two categories. Some are: tessitura, interval spacing (the distance between two notes), the use of arpeggios, chord tones, scales, non-chord tones, syncopation, and many others.
Rhythm is the ordering of sounds and silences on and between a continuous and evenly spaced unit of time, called the beat.
Sounds may or may not have pitch. Many percussion instruments do not have pitch yet function as the rhythm section in most popular forms of music: they create and maintain the beat. (Tango is quite unique in not having a dedicated rhythm section). Musicians call sounds with pitch, notes and silences, rests. A note has both pitch and duration; a rest only duration.
When notes, and possibly rests, of (usually) different duration are combined there is rhythm.
There are usually two layers of rhythm in tango: melodic and accompaniment. More...
Beat is the underlying and regularly spaced pulse of the music, measured in beats per minute. There are a fixed number of beats in a bar, indicated by the time signature. Tango (2/4, 4/8, 4/4) has 2 or 4 beats per bar, vals (3/4) has 3 and milonga (2/4) has 2.
(There may be a sense of 4 beats even though the time signature is 2/4. Tango very often subdivides the 2/4 beat, doubling the count from 2 to 4, effectively using a 4/8 time signature. Some tango music is explicitly written in 4/8, most are in 2/4. See Tango Time Signatures and the Beat).
Sections are the top level element of music's form. They are the the large building blocks of tango music, typically lasting around thirty seconds or so. Each section is a unique segment of music, having a distinct musical character.
Tango music has two, occasionally three, primary sections, which we may label “A”, “B”, “C”. Sometimes there is an "Introduction", "Bridge", a short section between two larger ones, or "Coda", a short concluding section.
Usually each section will be played consecutively in order (A then B then C), followed by various other orderings. Typically in tango songs each section is played instrumentally then each is sung, then section A is played instrumentally: A-B-A (vocal)-B (vocal)-A. But there are many exceptions and other possibilities.
Phrases exist within a section.