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  • John Chambers

    John Chambers May 31, 2006, 3:24 p.m. (Message 45436)

    Re: Reels and Hornpipes

    Steve Wyrick wrote:
    | John, a minor correction: I'm pretty sure you meant _8_ 8th-notes and 2
    | beats per bar (which works out to cut time).
    Yeah; of course.  It can be hard to spot typos like that.
    | Incidentally, this business of confusing common (4/4) and cut time
    | signatures isn't a new issue.  Looking at facimiles of Robert Petrie's and
    | William Marshall's tunebooks from around the turn of the 18th/19th century,
    | reels in both collections are notated in either cut or common time, with no
    | apparent reason for the choice of one or the other!  -Steve
    Part of what's going on is that there has been a very slow change  to
    the  use  of  shorter notes over the centuries.  If you look at music
    from the 1500s and 1600s, you'll see that what we call a  whole  note
    was  the  usual way to write a "beat".  By the 1700s, a beat was more
    often written as a half note, and the cut-time notation for reels  is
    a relic of this. In the 1800s, it became more common to use a quarter
    note for the beat, and that's the standard way to  write  polkas  and
    But there has always been confusion or disagreement on this.   A  few
    years ago, I got curious and went through my music books, and counted
    the key signatures for a few rhythms.  The one that really stood  out
    was  marches,  which  were  almost evenly divided between 2/4 and cut
    time.  It got even more confusing because of a third,  rarer  choice:
    4/4 with a quarter note for the beat and half as many bar lines.
    I've seen a few cases of cut-and-paste pages for SCD that had marches
    in all three notations. This sometimes causes problems when you reach
    the 4/4 tune, and part the band plays it twice as fast as the  others
    (as if it were a cut-time reel).  Some marches have sufficiently long
    notes that you can double the speed and they work, though they're  no
    longer marches.  (It's one reason to have rehearsals. ;-)
    The Early Music crowd sometimes has problems with  this.   There  are
    some  pieces  of music for which the tempo isn't known, and the music
    works at several different speeds (and with a  different  note  value
    for  the "beat").  Of course, if it's music for a dance that can't be
    reconstructed, it doesn't matter, and you can play  it  any  way  you
    like.   But if you're a dedicated Early Music sort, you probably find
    this worrying, because you want to play it "right".
    I ran across a case like this a few months ago.  I also play for ECD,
    as well as for the local New England "vintage" dancers who like to do
    18th-C dances. Not surprisingly, these two crowds tend to be the same
    people.   Anyway,  the dance leader had sent us a tune he wanted, but
    there was no clue to the tempo.  We played it at both a  fast  "reel"
    tempo and a slower "walking" tempo, and we liked it both ways.  Email
    asking him about it didn't help; we didn't have enough terminology in
    common  to get across the problem.  What we did was, before the dance
    was taught, we played both versions and asked which  was  right.   He
    picked  the  "walking tune" version, so we played that one.  Most ECD
    musicians can probably tell similar stories,  as  this  is  a  common
    problem with the notation for that music.
       O   John Chambers
     <:#/> <>
       +   <>
      /#\  in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, Earth
      | |
      ' `

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