(Originally posted August, 2005.)

Subtle Unequal Beats

Here’s an example of a “Melodic Lesson” by Jaques-Dalcroze, from his set of Thirty Melodic Lessons (Trente Lecons Melodiques).

This study, the last of Jaques-Dalcroze’s Thirty Melodic Lessons, deals with unequal beats — but in a very subtle fashion.

Begin by considering the piece as having two beats per measure throughout. The added eighth note arrives as a little surprise, not merely elongating the second beat, but also lifting and rounding it. It enters in the middle of the measure, rather than being tacked on at the end, evident in both the piano part and the vocal line. In that way, it creates a new contour for the 5/8 measure — from a static or vertical up-and-down opening, the new eighth note propels and lifts the second part of the measure over its three eighth-note (compound) beat.

Part of that lift comes from Jaques-Dalcroze’s melody. Try omitting any one of the three eighth notes grouped in the fourth measure, and you’ll notice that the buoyant lift is gone. The repeated E’s also lend a sense of contrast and surprise to the rising and elongation in the 5/8 measures.

Next he gives us a sequence in 5/8, using the dactylic rhythmic mode. Here the two sixteenth notes give momentum to the higher pitch that starts each compound beat. The overall effect is somewhat undulating, until its lilt is interrupted by insistent dactylic patterns in equal beats. These feel rather driven in their energy after we’ve been lulled into a rocking motion by what preceded them. Finally, he closes with a return to the initial idea.


Ideas for teaching:

  • Introductory experiences of these concepts might begin with simple 2/4 beat and division.
  • Combine these to bring in the dactylic pattern over two beats (quarter, eighth eighth). Notice how the physical momentum moves forward to the next beat. (This is an anacrusic pattern.)
  • Transfer dactylic to one beat (eighth sixteenth sixteenth). Here the momentum builds with such energy, the eighth note may become a spring, lifting from the floor.
  • Find movement for three divisions — eighth notes equal in tempo to those in the previous exercises — particularly with emphasis on a drop and lift on the first one. (Yes, that’s 6/8.)
  • Return to the 2/4 meter’s divisions (eighth notes), and bring in the lifting compound beat with a signal, such as “oop” or “three” or “lift.” That is, students move equal groups of divisions in 2/4; on your signal, they create a beat of three such divisions, then return right away to the groupings of two divisions.
  • Change the two divisions to a dactylic pattern to create the “dactylic – three eighth notes” pattern. This creates even greater forward movement leading into the lift.
  • Following exercises like these (and many more you’ll invent along the way), Jaques-Dalcroze’s piece is familiar territory by the time the students even see it!

(You can order the complete volume of Thirty Melodic Lessons here!)