Rhythm Workshop: When Meters Collide

Any time you set up a 3/4 meter, there’s a 2/4 and 4/4 sub-meter lurking within, and vice versa. Here’s how four, three, and two become one.
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We’ve devoted a lot of space here in the Rhythm Workshop to exploring rhythmic groupings of twos and threes, but did you know that these two basic metric building blocks actually exist simultaneously? Any time you set up a 3/4 meter, there’s a 2/4 and 4/4 sub-meter lurking within, and vice versa. Here’s how four, three, and two become one.

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Ex. 1 is designed to take you there and back over the course of eight rhythmic conversions. Staff 1 begins in 3/4 with three quarter-notes per bar. Establish a tempo circa 150 bpm and tap it out with your right hand while keeping time with your foot. Staff 2 sub-divides each measure into two equal beats by switching the eighth-note groupings from 2+2+2 to 3+3, and Staff 3 presents the same rhythm written without ties. Maintain the same tempo and tap these dotted-quarter notes with your left hand on beat one and the and of beat two. Your hands should be playing a both-right- left-right pattern using a quarter-eighth- eighth-quarter-note rhythm. (Tip: Think “Ting-ting-a-ling” from a popular Christmas song.) Now, observe how your right hand is playing threes while your left is simultaneously playing twos, and how these two interchangeable rhythms mesh, albeit at different tempos. Slow it down and speed it up. Staff 4 converts the left-hand dotted-quarter twos to a two-beat quarter-note pulse in 2/4. Try switching between threes and twos using only one hand. Staff 5 maintains the same quarter-note pulse and combines two bars of 2/4 into a single measure of 4/4, which can now be further subdivided into eighth-notes (Staff 6), eighth-note triplets (Staff 7), sixteenth-notes (not notated), or in any combination. Still in 4/4, Staff 8’s quarter-note triplets—which utilize every other note of the eighth-note triplets—bring us full circle by recreating the exact rhythm from Staff 1 in a different meter. This is confirmed in Staff 9, where we shift meters by re-designating each quarter-note triplet as a trio of quarter-notes in 3/4, thus completing the cycle.

The idea is to become familiar and comfortable enough with superimposed meters to shift in and out of them at will. It’s a common technique in jazz improvisation, and soloists often use it to lead rhythm sections through metric variations such as morphing from a 3/4 or 6/8 jazz waltz to fast 4/4 swing and back again within a single song. It’s also applicable to other genres, and is particularly useful in blues and rock. (Tip: Listen to Cream’s “Sleepy Time Time” and ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”)

Speaking of jazz waltzes, Staff 1 in Ex. 2 codifies the essence of the 3/4 jazz-waltz rhythm with its eighth-quarter-eighth-quarter- note motif. (Tip: Accent the quarter-notes in each measure—“do-DA-do-DA.”) Staff 2 re-illustrates the superimposition of two-against-three, while Staff 3 shows the “dotted-quarter equals quarter-note” metric conversion to 2/4. (Note how we’re actually changing tempo.) Try shifting back and forth between these figures for, say, two bars each while improvising using single-note lines or chords. You can also apply any or all of the remaining subdivisions from Ex. 1, as well as the myriad variations we’ve encountered in the past few months. (See Rhythm Motif Redux Pts. 1 & 2, GP November and Holiday 2014.) Another way to notate a jazz waltz is in 6/8. The quarter-equals-eighth-note tempo conversion in Ex. 3 sounds identical to Ex. 2, but is notated in double-time by halving the value of each note.

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Now let’s put this stuff to work. The rhythms in Ex. 4, which is based on the chord progression to Toots Theilmans’ “Bluesette,” a 12-bar, 6/8 (or 24-bar, 3/4) jazz waltz in F, flow freely between Ex. 3’s metric subdivisions. The 6/8 jazzwaltz measures (1, 5, 7, 9, and the first half of 10) break each chord shape into a hybrid-picked bass-chord-bass-chord figure again with the do-DA-do-DA accents. (Note the staccato phrasing on the first and third eighth-note hits.) The remaining measures utilize strummed dotted-eighth- notes to superimpose four equally spaced hits—two per chord in this case— over the 6/8 pulse. Of course, this is but one of many possible strategies—the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Discover and then mix and match your own subdivisions and have a blast exploring your new-found rhythmic freedom!