My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A note of apology and sympathy to 3/4 time

Image from a phenakistoscope by Eadweard Muybridge
from Wikimedia Commons
Dear 3/4,

I want to start by telling you that personally, I like you a lot.  You're a great time signature - simple yet elegant.  2/4 and 4/4, they're ok but they're just too square for me sometimes.  Then there are those tricky little meters - you know, the ones with odd numbers on top, or big numbers on the bottom - 7/8, 5/8, 7/16, 15/4, 59/48.   Those can be entertaining, intriguing, and wonderful exercise for a musician's mind, but sometimes they can be, well, a little much.  When I'm in the mood for something else, you're there with such grace at times, or with a flair that makes me dream of twirling on the dance floor in the arms of my dear husband.  So thank you for that.

It has come to my attention, however, that you are sorely neglected and abused and I wanted to take a moment to express my sadness and sympathy to you.  I first discovered the dreadful state of your neglect this past summer as I was working with a group of talented high-school singers that had gathered for a month of intense study.  In the middle of a string of individual rehearsals I realized that I was getting weary of having to correct the singers' rhythm and of constantly adjusting the accompaniment when it dawned on me that the majority of the time the problems occurred when the song was in 3/4.  As I continued rehearsing it then became clear that it wasn't just sometimes that problems occurred, it was every single time - no exaggeration.  That same night we had a student recital that was a mixture of both vocal and instrumental music.  As I was waiting for the program to start I leaned over to one of the voice teachers and told him about my odd findings.  At first he looked slightly dubious but I said in a hushed whisper as the lights were dimming, "Just listen."  

That night, every single piece in 3/4 had major rhythmic instability.  Beats were being added or omitted everywhere, I suppose in an attempt to make your wonderfully unsymmetrical meter more symmetrical. didn't matter.  It sounded a bit like the kids were trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  And ever since that night, things haven't changed.  I'm sorry, 3/4, you just seem to bamboozle a lot of folks, especially the younger ones.  When I got to thinking about why this might be, it's really no wonder.  After all, how much popular music (rock, pop, rap, etc...) is in 3/4?  Especially music that's being written and performed by bands today?  Hmmm...not a whole lot, if any!  6/8, yes.  That pops up from time to time but 6/8 isn't 3/4.  To me, 6/8 is the same as 2/4 - symmetrical but with a little lilt.  

But in spite of all this bad news, I want you to know that I'm on a mission - a mission to preserve who you are.  And I'm getting others on board to help me.  They say that knowing is half the battle and now we know.  We just need to figure out how to help people understand you and to feel you.  Here are some thoughts I've had and some things I'm already trying:
We can help musicians to hear and understand what makes you so wonderful.  I often take a piece that's giving a student problems and purposefully alter it so that it becomes a piece in 2/4 or 4/4.  I then ask the student how doing that affects how the piece sounds and feels.  More often than not their face cringes or they shake their heads in disapproval at the newly arranged version.  It's a good way to get them to find some determination to fix the problem. 
We can teach them how to waltz.  I'm showing my age here, but I admit that I've known how to waltz since I was a little girl because I had to go to dancing school when I was in elementary school.  But I'm pretty sure that most kids today don't even know what a waltz is, much less know how to do it themselves.  So with every student that I encounter that's having trouble feeling the meter, I teach them how to do the steps and we dance the waltz together, eventually singing the music along with our dancing.  I make sure that on each downbeat the leg we are on bends a bit so that we can really feel the weight of your downbeat.   And yes, I often feel silly and awkward doing this and yes, they feel even more silly and awkward, but I do think it's worth it.  
We can show them how to conduct in three.  This can be tricky for students too and takes some practice but it's another great way to help students see and feel what you're all about - that you're not symmetrical and that there's really only one beat that is assisted by gravity.   
With some examples, we can encourage them to play fast enough (as an exercise) to allow them to feel two measures together in 6/8, with the first measure being the first beat and the second measure being the second beat.  I have found that doing this sometimes helps students as an intermediate step since it gives them the symmetry they often desire.  When they can do this without any hesitation and with ease, I gradually slow up the tempo until the music is back in 3.   
We can make sure that they are truly understanding every rhythm within each measure.  This is actually something I stress with students regardless of meter but I think it's worth mentioning here since I think it's really important.  Most students spend a majority of their time guessing how rhythms go even though rhythms have a clear mathematical solution.  Another mission of mine is to prove to young musicians that it is worth the time it takes to figure out a rhythm because with true comprehension and internalization comes the freedom to fully express musicality. 
We can be merciless in our expectation that everyone can learn to love 3/4 and to be able to play this wonderful music with ease and comfort.  Need I say more?
So in summary, 3/4, I just wanted you to know that someone out there is thinking about you and that many of us appreciate all that you do for the classical music world.  You may not be as popular in other genres, but you have a place.

You have a friend in me.   After all, what would this world be like without "Amazing Grace," "The Blue Danube Waltz," and "Bist du bei mir?"

Hang in there, 3/4.  We're working on it.

Respectfully yours,

If anyone else has any other suggestions about helping students with 3/4, please do share them here!  I'm obviously on a mission and could use all the ideas I can get!  And if you know of any "cool" music in 3/4 that is not classical I'd love to know that too and I'll add it to a playlist I'm going to get up on youtube soon.  Thanks!


  1. AH! we a ruled by a binary world!

  2. I recall many years ago showing up for my classical guitar lesson, with a piece in 3/4. My teacher was bamboozled until she figured out I was playing it in 4/4. Don't ask me how I did that.

  3. This is a comment that Rick Robinson left on my facebook page - I think his points are wonderful and wanted to make sure they were here too!

    "I site Fur Elise as an instant illustration of 3/4 time. Have your students MARCH too because that is also a forgotten movement that forms the basis for much classical. Indeed dance, movement and gesture seem to be the lost basis for classical."

    Thanks, Rick!

  4. Ha ha, Kim! Yes, you are so right about that. Thanks for that link and for reading.


  5. Patrick,
    Believe it or not, I'm not surprised that you did that. That's not to say anything about you personally! I've heard people do this quite a lot. Kind of amazing that we have the ability to do that. Crazy brains.

    Thank you for reading and commenting, Patrick!


  6. i learned how to waltz in elementary school too! of course, the minuet was the most popular dance of the year.

    hope you are enjoying the late autumn season and preparing for a mild winter...

    Beethoven’s Fur Elise (Bagatelle in A Minor Wo0 59) la mineur a-Moll Vladimir Ashkenazy piano
    “a powerful love ending in a broken heart’s soothing pulse, pleading with the universe in a mysterious deep prayer that draws us into his sorrow”

  7. For any who are seriously interested in exploring clarity in musical performance using movement, I offer the highest recommendation of this book, "Deepening Musical Performance through Movement" by Dr. Alexandra Pierce ( I studied with her for many years and am still very close after nearly 4 decades, This work, finally condensed into a long-awaited - but long-evolving - book, not only improved my musicianship but affected every area of my life through the gifts of body awareness, consciously moving into and out of alignment. Soon there will be visual support of the book through free online videos.

    For now, re 3/4, I'd add swaying with very clear (beat) ONE (w smooth follow-through alllll the way through beat 3) and, where particularly unclear, maybe inventing sentences with accents that match the meter or a specific rhythm. Off the top of my head, to get the feel of 3/4, soon adding swaying (accents in caps): I'D like to GO to the STORE to buy CHOColate and ON the way HOME we can STOP for an ICE cream cone!

    Now try saying it in 4/4 to hear how wrong it sounds and feels, just like music is so off when we do that:

    I'D like to go TO the store to BUY chocolate and ON the way home WE can stop for AN ice cream cone!

    Swaying, lilting, waltzing … fun!

    RachDminor (who has bothered to figure out signing other than Anonymous :-/ )

  8. First of all, great post!

    Since it's the holidays, Silent Night might be a good example for an exercise. I know it's in 6/8, but a lot of my students have arrangements in 3/4 and they seem to get it immediately (don't get me started on dotted quarter notes, though!) Also, don't forget about 'Piano Man' which is in 3/4. I'm going to have to rack brain for examples from this millennium...

    Rob N.

    1. Also the Christmas Waltz, by the Carpenters.

  9. Very funny, David. I have a feeling you're exaggerating just a bit, especially with the minuet part.

    And yes, I'm definitely enjoying the weather that this year is bringing us so far. And do you have special connections that tell you that this is indeed going to be a mild winter?

    I hope so!

    Many thanks for reading, David.


  10. "Anonymous," better known to me and so many others as @RachDMinor,

    Thank you so very much for the book recommendation. It is on my wish list now and I'm eager to read it and to keep a lookout for any videos that might be put up. I think I had some work with movement way back when I was a very, very little but to this day, I remember it so it made an impact! I wonder why it is that that type of training seemed to stop way back then. Oh well, guess it's never too late!

    And your chocolate/ice cream sentence...I love it and it's a perfect example for 3/4. However, I fear it might make me drool and crave those very things which could be distracting. I might have to choose different words! ;-) But thank you for the idea!

    And last but not least, I completely agree about the "fun" thing and 3/4. As I said in the post, I love it :-)

    Nice to see you here, RachDMinor. Thank you for reading and sharing!

    All the best,

  11. Rob,
    Silent Night - yes! I was actually singing that to myself for part of the time I was writing the post. Seriously! That's one of my favorite Christmas carols.

    And in regards to dotted quarter notes, oh no, I DO want to get you started! That's a big issue with me too. So many people seem to have dot-a-phobia and instead of figuring out how the dot works out mathematically, they choose instead to just wing it. I don't like winging it, especially when it comes to dots because that just takes away from the power of the dot. Oh dear, I guess you got me started! Anyway, yes, dots. Grrrr...

    Piano Man! Yes! Adding that to my list. If you think of anything else, please let me know, especially if it's something that would be impressive to teens.

    Thank you for reading and commenting, Rob!

    Happy teaching and playing!


  12. Erica,

    Very interesting observation. It's true that "knowing is half the battle," and I think that your discovery will be helpful to a lot of people. Thank you for pointing this out.

    I too have noticed students slipping into a wrong meter, but I didn't realize that the problem was specific to 3/4 or how widespread the issue was. You mentioned that you first made the connection when working with singers. I wonder if you've noticed a greater correlation with singers than to (other) instrumentalists. Also, I wonder if this problem exists in other cultures, and if so, if it's as common as it is in the US. For example, do they have trouble with 3/4 in German-speaking countries?

    With regard to helping people appreciate 3/4, I second the earlier discussion about movement. You might even consider revising your list such that waltzing and conducting are just 2 examples of moving, with @RachDMinor's addition of swaying as another example. Other examples of moving would be to let the student create their own movement ostinato while you play a 3/4 pattern on the piano. Let them be creative and whenever possible encourage large movements, locomotion and shifting weight. If I were to brainstorm a bit more, I'd say perhaps you play a 1-2-3 pattern on the piano and have them move, then switch! (Yes, depending on their age they will feel silly about doing this; the switching will help.) And then, play a specific 3/4 rhythm, perhaps an excerpt from the music they are working on and have them create a movement...then switch, you replicating their movement and the student copying your playing. If you are really passionate about this problem, I suggest you consider studying and incorporating Dalcroze Eurythmics into your teaching. Dalcroze has already done a great deal of work into the topic of internalizing meter.

    Also, don't forget about body percussion. All my suggestions from above can be applied with stomps, claps, snaps and pats, for meter and rhythms both. Take a look into what Keith Terry has done in this field.

    Then of course there's what Arlo Guthrie called "The boring method". Drill. (Well, it's not exactly what he called the boring method, but he would approve. I think.) Those dry books of rhythmic exercises can be very effective. I wonder if you use them and if so, how do you ask your students to perform the exercises. (Personally I like takadimi very much for rhythmic vocalization). Variety is the spice of life in this case too, and the possibilities for performing these are only limited by your imagination.

    P.S. Did 3/4 ever respond to your note?

  13. Hello, suzukisceptic,
    It's so nice to see you here :-) And thank you for all of your comments! Let's see...where to begin?

    In answer to your question about whether or not I see the problem in vocalists or instrumentalists more, there really isn't a difference - there are problems across the board, at least in my experience. I too would be curious to know if there is a difference between people of different cultures. I don't know how prevalent 3/4 is in those cultures or even if it exists.

    In regards to swaying...I've been thinking about that a bit and doing some experimenting myself and personally I find swaying a bit tricky in relation to 3/4 since to my body, swaying feels more like a duple meter of some sort...left, right, left, right. If I apply that to 3/4 I then have to alternate which side I'm swaying to on each downbeat. LEFT right left RIGHT left right...if that makes any sense. I have a hard time with that but it could very well be me. I'm not very good on my feet.

    I love your term "movement ostinato" - very intriguing to me and makes me want to get a group of people together to see what they might come up with. As I just remarked, I'm not really very good with the movement stuff so I have a difficult time even thinking of a movement that would be good for such an exercise. I've always wanted to take dance and movement classes - maybe now is the time for that and for Eurythmics.

    I haven't heard of Keith Terry before so I'll look into him as well. Thank you for the recommendation. I've just glanced at his blog - looks like he's quite the creative individual!

    Since I'm so new in the teaching arena I feel pretty clueless about so many of the different pedagogues, methods, etc...the pertain to rhythm and pulse. I truly appreciate all of your suggestions and names. Many, many thanks for taking the time to give me your feedback and ideas!

    All the best and as always, I look forward to chatting here and on twitter!


  14. Oh, and suzukiskeptic,
    How could I forget to answer your last question?!?

    Nope, never heard back from 3/4 time, alas. Perhaps I need to work a bit harder to help others with the issue before it'll take me back in its good graces! I better get to work.


  15. Swaying (which is just one of many movement possibilities - good starting place) just requires listening for and FEELING beat ONE, on which you change direction. (Focussed follow-through can come later.) Just like an old-fashioned pendulum metronome set to tick on beat one, it works with any meter but does require (& helps develop) more conscious listening I can easily imagine an entire stadium swaying to Piano Man, for example. Try that now, just singing it - you may rethink its ease and applicability. (The 4-measure phrases will satisfy your duple clutch - and deepen musical meter awareness even further.)

    Swaying is a safe starting point to do this (can do it just with forearm, used like pendulum with elbow as fulcrum, with clear ONE). While group movement can be a very rich experience when well led, the majority are shy about doing large movements in a group - at least at first. That's why I suggested swaying - to start small.


  16. Ah, of course, RachDminor! Thank you so much for that clarification. Makes sense now. I don't know why I didn't think of that since I am a fan of thinking in larger pulses. Oh well.

    I'll play around that and try it out on the willing victims.

    Many thanks again!


  17. Check out Dr. Edwin E. Gordon's discussion of rhythm layers, function, rhythm patterns, and rhythm syllables. Once we learn how to FEEL rhythm (rhythm is experienced by body movement) then we learn how to notate and read rhythm/meter. Notation is confusing and cannot explain duple and triple meter. Let me repeat: Notation confuses rhythm understanding. Body movement accurately defines meter and rhythm. Layers of rhythm are: Pulse, divisions of pulse into two or three parts for duple or triple meters, and rhythm patterns of four pulses chanted while the body moves to the pulse with the heels and the meter with hand touches. It is beautiful. Five year olds understand the twoness and threeness of meter. Check out "Lies My Piano Teacher Told Me" by Gerald Eskelin. Great book! (BTW there is no difference in feel or sound between 3/4 and 6/8. All triple music can be notated either way. Example: different notations of "Silent Night."

    1. Thank you, Marilyn, for your suggestions! (I'm guessing this is your comment.) We've talked a bit about Gordon before - I'm a newbie with his ideas and am so excited to keep exploring them. I'm also starting to look into the Dalcroze method as well - they seem to share similar concepts. Do you have any experience with Dalcroze?

      And I love your point about notation confusing understanding of rhythm. I'm finding that out as well in my class I'm teaching so I'm trying to get them to start hearing and feeling the rhythms first and then learning to just recognize the notation quickly by sight. That way they aren't having to hurt their brains trying to figure out the rhythms.

      I'll also check out the book by Eskelin - sounds perfect!

      So many great ideas in one comment. Thank you!