Al's Music Tidbits - Volume 7
“Harmonic Rhythm” Edition
by Al Shank
Last week, we talked about the “harmonic progression” of songs and I gave some examples from the Bluegrass repertoire. However, except for the partial lead sheet for “Blue Ridge Cabin Home”, they were just sequences of chord symbols, without any indication of how long to stay on each chord. The relative duration of different chords in a song or tune is called “Harmonic Rhythm”, and in order to talk about it, we must first talk about rhythm itself. We have concentrated so far on pitch, or “action in space”; now we have to talk about “action in time”.
If you tap your foot (cool) or clap (not cool >:-) when listening to music, you are sensing the rhythm, or meter (presumably). Rhythm is concerned with the duration, or time, of each pitch (or chord) in music, and meter is concerned with the organization of timed pitches (or chords) into recurrent time patterns. The basic unit of meter is the measure, or bar, (you’ve heard the term “12-bar blues”?), while the basic unit of rhythm is a beat. What constitutes a “beat” is defined by the “time signature”, which also defines the measure. For example, the time signature 4/4 says that each measure consists of 4 beats, and each beat is represented by a “quarter note”. So, what’s a “quarter note”? Well, it’s one quarter of a whole note, half of a half note, two times an eighth note, etc. In standard musical notation, everything is relative, and everything is ratios, or fractions. “Oh, boy, I thought I was done with fractions after the 8th grade!”, you may be saying. Fortunately, you don’t have to find any “common denominators” or anything. In fact, the choice of which note value gets a beat is completely arbitrary, because it’s the relative duration of notes that matters. By the way, silence is also a part of music, since there is not always a note being played, so for each note-value symbol there is a corresponding “rest” symbol, indicating the duration of silence between notes. In any case, I’m not going to get into standard musical notation in these articles, because most Bluegrass musicians don’t even read music. Most people learn Bluegrass by listening and imitating, and when Bluegrass music is written down it’s usually in what we call “tablature” instead of standard musical notation on a staff.
Let’s talk about “tablature” a bit. Tablature is a way of writing down music for a particular stringed instrument, showing the strings as horizontal lines and the notes to be played as numbers, indicating at which fret the string is pressed down (or 0 if played open). The note values are indicated by “stems” above or below the horizontal lines. The measures are separated by “bar lines”. The advantage of tablature is that it is easier to read and it shows you where the notes are on your instrument. The disadvantage is that you need separate tablature for each instrument, whereas standard musical notation applies to any instrument. The only thing I want to show about standard musical notation is how the different note values are represented:
The circle without a stem is a whole note, the open note head with a stem is a half note, the filled-in note head with a stem is a quarter note and the filled-in note heads with stems connected by a bar are eighth notes. (An eighth note by itself has a little “flag” on the stem.) Below the musical staff is the tablature for string bass. The whole note is indicated in tablature just by a number on a line, with no stem; the half note is a number on a line with a stem below the lines; the quarter note is a number on a line with a stem reaching from the number down; the eighth note has a stem and a bar and the sixteenth note has two bars. Rests are indicated the same way, but there is no number on a line, since no note is being played.
In the tablature I am going to use, everything will be shown in either 4/4 or 3/4 meter (waltz time). In 4/4, each measure consists of notes and/or rests in any combination of values adding up to one whole note, such as four quarter notes, two half notes, one half note and two quarter notes, eight eighth notes, etc. etc.
I think we now have enough information to get back to chords and “harmonic rhythm”. Since we now know what a measure is and what it looks like in tablature, we can indicate how long we stay on different chords in a song by showing chord symbols inside of measures, like this:
| I | IV | V | I | OR | I | IV | I | I |
So, the first would mean:
4 beats on the I chord
4 beats on the IV chord
4 beats on the V chord
4 beats back on the I chord
and the second would mean:
4 beats on the I chord
4 beats on the IV chord
8 beats back on the I chord
The chord-progression examples from the end of last week's article can now be completed as:
I Wonder Where You Are Tonight 4/4
| I | I | IV | IV | V | V | I | I |
| I | I | IV | IV | V | V | I | I | verse
| IV | IV | I | I | I | I | V | V |
| I | I | IV | IV | V | V | I | I | chorus
Blue Moon of Kentucky 3/4
| I | I | IV | IV | I | I | V | V |
| I | I | IV | IV | I | V | I | I | verse
| IV | IV | I | I | IV | IV | I | V |
| I | I | IV | IV | I | V | I | I | chorus
Sweetheart of Mine, Can’t You Hear Me Calling? 4/4
| I | I | I | I | IV | IV | I | I | IV | IV | I | I | IV | V | I | I | verse and chorus
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