Annotation for Lester, Joel

The Rhythms of Tonal Music

Annotation (by Jay Tomlin):


Chapter 1: The Study of Rhythm

Rhythm refers to the durational aspect of music, and the following aspects of rhythm may be identified (5-6):

Accent is defined briefly as "the relative strength of a note or other musical event in relation to surrounding notes or events," and meter as one type of accentuation (11).

Chapter 2: Accent

Prior to the presentation of his own ideas about accent, Lester points out the following oversights he finds in other theories of accent (13-16):

  1. The failure to differentiate accent as an aspect of performance and accent as an inherent quality of a note or event (Robert Donington)
  2. The failure to differentiate between dynamic intensification (stress) and other types of accent
  3. The failure to differentiate between poetic accent and musical accent
  4. The failure to differentiate metric accent from other kinds of accent

Accents are points of emphasis and initiation, and can be considered strong only in relation to their surroundings. A metric accent needs no surface event to mark it off (once the meter is established), but is a point of initiation just like a harmonic change or the beginning of a new dynamic level. Factors that give rise to accent are longer durations (of most any musical parameter) and "new events" like pitch change, harmonic change, or textural change. While many parameters may operate concomitantly, Lester avoids the notion that the total accent of a musical event is the sum of all of its individual accent-creating parts; such a tally system would ignore that 1) not all accent-producing factors are of equal importance, 2) accents occur in a metrical context, and 3) our perception of accents in a given passage is affected by our familiarity with that passage (40).

Chapter 3: Meter

"Two separate components are . . . necessary for the existence of a meter: a stream of beats or pulses, and an organization of those beats or pulses into accented and unaccented ones" (45). To account for varying time-spans at the beat level, Lester claims that "beats mark off functionally equivalent spans of time" (46). Meter is defined as the interac-tion of the beat level with the level at which the beats are organized. The process of orga-nizing beats at higher levels has an inherent ceiling, though, which is discussed in chapter 6. The one level that we perceive as "the" meter of the passage is referred to as the primary metric level (50). The primary metric level, once established, rapidly assumes a perceptual life of its own (I like to refer to this phenomenon as mental inertia), and metric events are heard in relation to the grid of the primary metric level.
Several accentual factors can aid in establishing a meter, but harmonic change is the strongest of all such factors. Durational and textural accents provide metric groupings when the harmonic changes occur too rapidly or too slowly to group the pulses. Only in the absence of harmonic changes and durational textural accents do other features serve to imply metric groupings" (63). Much subtlety and grace can be removed from a passage of music by needlessly emphasizing with durational or dynamic accent a meter that is already made clear by its harmonic changes: When the meter is already clear, . . . the durational accents do not need such reinforcement--adding them makes the performance over-accented and plodding" (67).

Chapter 4: Metric Ambiguity and Change

"Although in general an already existing meter will not be easily destroyed, there are indeed metric situations in which metric ambiguity does arise." Metric ambiguity can occur as a meter is being established, or "when conflicting patterns of accentuation persist and upset an already established meter" (86). In cases (such as Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony No. 41, II) where the opening music provides insufficient or inconclusive evidence in support of any one meter, all accentual patterns should be considered as integral to the character of the music: "This perspective does not insist on ignoring or denigrating any factor(s) but recognizes the role of each factor and the interaction of all the factors in producing the rhythm of the passage" (90). Such initial metrical ambiguities may also serve to foreshadow cross-accentuations in later passages.

Chapter 5: Multiple Metric Levels and Style

"The way in which the various levels interact with one another relates closely to what we call musical style" (127). More specifically, the primary metric level encompasses larger and larger spans of time and hypermeters rise out from the notated measure as music proceeds from the baroque era. In Bach's music, the primary metric level is almost always the individual beat (fast harmonic rhythm); frequently there is "functionally meaningful harmonic motion at the very fastest levels in the piece on a continuous basis" (130). In later music, the harmonic rhythm decelerates, giving rise to more easily recognizable hyper-meter above the notated measure.
The phenomenon of multiple simultaneously implied meters is also an element of style. "The compositional attitudes that allow or do not allow multiple pacings to arise lie deep in the style of an era or of a composer" (153). In this sense, meter occupies a position in Lester's theory similar to that of counterpoint in Schenker's: counterpoint is a more obvious surface element of baroque music but a deeper structural element in later music.

Chapter 6: Hypermeter, Meter, and Phrase Rhythms

Lester's theory of meter at higher levels is that as we approach higher and higher levels, meter is less and less plausible. Moreover, metric ambiguity, a rarity at the beat level, is the norm at higher levels because meter-causing factors such as harmonic change, durational accents, and textural accents are not present or do not operate with any perceivable regularity. He sharply criticizes the view held by Schenker, Schachter and Berry that higher-level metric accent is directly analogous to the metric accents within a single measure. He offers three fundamental differences between measures and phrases which in his opinion render that analogy moot (163):

  1. Accents within a measure both recede from the preceeding downbeat and lead toward the following downbeat; such is not the case with the accentual status of measures within a phrase.
  2. Phrases are discrete musical thoughts, ending with a cadence and a breath that separates them from the following music; measures are, by and large, not separate units--within a phrase they often lead directly to the following measure.
  3. The accentual status of beats in a measure arises from predictably repetitious patterning; since phrase lengths do not remain the same throughout most tonal pieces, there is no equivalent patterning on the phrase level.

He adds furthermore that even where there is an unambiguous regular hypermeter at a high level, our ability to perceive it as such is questionable. At some point, the increasingly longer functionally equivalent time-spans "become too long to be perceived as single pulses awaiting a higher level of grouping" (168).

Chapter 7: Rhythm and Linear Analysis

"In general, Schenker does not assert any systematic relationship between pitch processes and specific rhythmic phenomena" (195). But in his analyses he does imply three approaches to rhythm:

  1. The duration of a phrase division in the final score is accepted, and prior levels are notated so as to fit into that duration.
  2. Every level, including the background, contains a specific rhythmic and metric notation.
  3. Phrases can be expanded to include "extra" measures of music.

Lester, agreeing with most theorists, believes that Schenker never fully developed a theory of rhythm. But however incomplete his approach to rhythm may have been, his theory of pitch structure has certainly affected the way that many theorists view rhythm. Among those chiefly influenced by Schenker in their development of a rhythmic theory is Arthur Komar, whose 1969 dissertation, "A Theory of Suspensions" offers "a comprehensive metric theory in which every pitch at every level in a hierarchical analysis is paired with a specific duration in a specific metric position" (200). But Lester remains unconvinced that meter can operate at higher levels, and therefore criticizes Komar's analysis of the slow movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" Piano Sonata, op.13, for containing time-spans at or near the background too lengthy to be perceived.

Chapter 8: Rhythm and Form

"Different types of formal layouts promote different types of phrasing patterns, cadences, composite rhythms, and so forth" (218). Echoing somewhat the ideas presented in chapter 5 about musical style, Lester maintains that rhythm can be an elemental role in distinguishing between musical forms which are delineated into sections and those which promote an overall continuity. In support of this idea he points out that in variation forms, "composers often grouped the early variations in a cycle by accelerations or decelerations in the composite rhythm over several sections" (219). Of a different rhythmic breed are ternary and rondo forms, whose sectional rhythms should contrast more sharply with one another in order to enhance the structural boundary lines. Although it is more difficult to make generalizations about the wildly varying theme groups in sonata forms, second theme groups in the exposition, he claims, tend to be united in their phrasing structure because of the dual, contradictory role they must play: they must establish the new key area in the exposition, but also avoid a too conclusive arrival in that new key area, for in the recapitulation the remainder of the theme (now also in the tonic) would sound "like a perfunctory tag" (229).
Lester's pervading doctrine in this chapter (and in chapter 5) is that rhythms and phrase structures are as much an element of style as are harmonic language, orchestration, form types, and aesthetic attitudes (242).

Chapter 9: Rhythm and Polyphony

"The first section of this chapter discusses rhythmic differentiation of parts in foreground textures; the second section extends this discussion to structural polyphony" (244). First, Lester shows that in imitative contrapuntal works by Bach such as inventions and fugues, the role of rhythm directly parallels the role of harmony and voice leading in terms of their ability to create complementary subjects and countersubjects. He concludes that while it may at first seem logical to adopt a Schenkerian approach to the rhythms of structural polyphony, "such a methodology will not lead to an appreciation of the independent structures of each textural component" (255).

Rhythm and Meter

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