Mapping The Music
By Greg Avakian
Author’s Note: It’s OK to share this, but please include me as the source. Although I invite questions and comments from anyone, these are notes for people who have taken the “Mapping the Music” class and it may be helpful to have actually taken the class. If you’d like more information about the material, or if you’d like me to teach this class in your community, please contact me. Thanks.
The purpose of this class is to help you understand a bit better how music works. It is
not a class that is so much about figuring out how to dance per se (although it can do
that for most people), but rather about how to understand, process and react to the rhythm in the music. What people usually tell me is that this class allowed them to articulate and visualize things that they already knew -which makes sense: because lot of you know how to hit breaks but not necessarily *why* you know how. This class is more about knowing better what you *already* know -and having a way for you to see what you know articulated in a visual picture.
Fee free to ask questions; I am really excited if I can actually teach you something new.
One basic premise I will make is that:
As dancers, we mostly listen to 2 elements of the music: MELODY and RHYTHM.
MELODY is the tune of the song: it’s what you whistle. We won’t talk about melody in these notes.
RHYTHM is really any and all temporal aspects of the music -that is, anything having to do with time in the music. That is quite different from just the “beat” or “pulse” -which are what most people mean when they talk about “rhythm”.
Rhythm has three basic elements that are important to dancers: Beat, Pulse, and Phrase.
What is the difference between beat and pulse?
The “Beat” is the regular, repeating rhythmic accent. The beat could be a metronome ticking. It’s “sharp”, pointed information. It’s the bean counter of the music. It’s what most people dance to. The difference between beat and rhythm is that rhythm is a continuum, so it can “breathe” a bit by contracting and expanding. As dancers advance, we can totally appreciate this, but most of us want to dance to a steady beat. For beginners this is imperative.
In order for there to be rhythm, time has to pass; so rhythm encompasses the beat and the space between the beats. If the moment of a beat itself is instantaneous, the relationship between 2 beats is the smallest building block of rhythm. In other words, 2 beats is the smallest unit of rhythm. These 2-beat rhythm units are like words in a book that make up a story.
To hear the difference between beat and rhythm, we listened to two songs in class and I had you all try to clap on the beat. As you may recall, there was some difference in opinion as to where the beat was, but we could still follow the rhythm. Check out the irregular beat in both of these vintage Delta blues songs. Dancing to the beat would be difficult here, but these songs both have great rhythm -a skilled dancer can dance through the beat to get the rhythmic feel of these songs, but most of us do not want this challenge on a regular basis.
-Skip James: Devil got my woman
-Jimmy Yancy: Crying in my sleep
The “Pulse” is the tension between or around the beats, which give the beats urgency or drive. It encompasses the beat, but it is also everything that happens around the beat. For instance, some music makes you want to bounce, some makes you want to swish your butt, or move in a sideways ‘figure 8’. Some music pulses “up” and some pulses “down”.
Pulse is like the PR department. It does marketing and advertising. “Beat” tells you when to dance, “Pulse” tells you how to dance.
Although pulse is usually regular, the pulse can be dynamic and can shift emphasis. Pulse can also make us aware of the highlights, which are extra juicy bits of rhythm or melody in the music -like breaks, cymbal crashes, or the ending or beginning of a new phrase.
What is a “Phrase”?
If those pulsing 2-beat increments are like words, then when we put beats together they form sentences. In the music that we dance to, the beats form patterns which can be from 4 beats (called a “measure” or “bar”), to 8 beats (a mini-phrase -this is usually one sentence in a song; it’s a complete idea, but it ain’t the whole story), to a major phrase -or “paragraph”- which is typically either 32 or 48 beats. By the way: 48 beats is a familiar format: 48 divided by 4 beats (or a “bar) is what we call “the 12-bar blues” (in other words, (12) 4-beat bars equals 48 beats). These major phrases are easily recognized: they are the “verses” and “chorus” of a song.
The reason that 8 beats is a “mini-phrase” is that “bars” work in sets of 2. In this way, they form the basic structure of a song (like a sentence, or a line in a poem). There are (2) bars in a mini-phrase. The first bar (beats 1-4) is a little stronger than the second bar (5-8). The first beat of any bar tends to be strongest, so we generally accent a mini-phrase as:
*1*, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
This often translates into 4 beats of singing and 4 beats of filler. Or often the singing is intense during the first 4 beats and more relaxed in the second 4 beats.
As an interesting side note: musical notation describes how *long* a note lasts, whereas musicians (and dancers) actually think about what happens *before* the beat to bring the flow of the music (or dance) *to* the beat. Therefore the musical *playing* of the phrase can sometimes be interpreted as actually starting *before* the notated phrase. For instance, if you’ve learned the dance the “Shim Sham”, you know that it starts on “8” and not “1”.
Thanks for readin’!