59. Rhythmic Irregularities 1


Moving on two feet generates rhythm. It may not be perfect or disciplined, but putting one foot in front of the other is usually a rhythmic activity. In music, rhythm is great for informing you about where the beat is. In fact, that’s its function and, in a manner of speaking, its definition. Musicians are taught to read the time signature and then to know the beats of each measure. Soon, they learn to divide the beat into smaller slices of time. This helps to know where, for example, to place an eighth note or precisely when to play the third note of a triplet.

But what happens when the composer wants to throw off the rhythm? We’ve heard examples here of music written in odd meters. (Think of the promenades of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition.) And sometimes irregular rhythms or just accents on other than standard downbeats can help make music more interesting—and possibly more enjoyable—while simultaneously maintaining the beat.

This article reviews some passages in pieces that provide clear downbeats, but also introduces a view to this fundamental of music’s other half: syncopation, the art and science of shifting emphasis so that those steady beats get thrown a curve. At times in the history of music, syncopation was even deemed rhythm’s evil twin.

Rousing Triple Time in Beethoven

There are many examples in the symphonic canon where a composer goes out of his way to throw off our rhythmic equilibrium. There are two instances in one of Beethoven’s symphonies that easily come to mind. First, in the opening movement of his third symphony, there is that wonderful hemiola effect that comes just before the end of the exposition.

Example 59.1 Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 3 (“Eroica”), Movement 1 (119–134)
Wolfgang Sawallisch, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, EMI

59.1 Beethoven - Symphony No.3, Mvmt 1 (119-134) Score Page

Click score page to enlarge.

The triple rhythm is running along comfortably; the audience is clear on where to tap its collective toes. Then Beethoven begins to give some clues that he’s got something up his sleeve. He starts by accenting every second beat for a few measures. You can hear the emphasis beginning on the second beat of measure 119 in Example 59.1, followed by the first, then the third beats of the next measure, and so on. (Although my focus here is on the rhythm, it’s part of Beethoven’s genius that the harmony and melody in this brief passage serve to emphasize this four-eighth note pattern, too.)

After a few bars, the score removes the downbeats on the first beat of the measure—a standard in most triple rhythms—beginning in measure 124. This continues for four bars and then Beethoven throws in the hemiola. It’s an awkwardly emphatic romp through “unfooted” territory. For four measures we have a quarter note chord followed by a quarter note rest. These sound like, and could be written as, six measures of 2/4.

Note the way Beethoven eases the listener back into triple rhythm when the violas and cellos enter piano in measure 132. And hear how he does not feel it’s important to hold our hand, rhythmically at least, through this passage: There’s no heavy downbeat on one, nor is there a guidepost to consistently emphasize the second and/or third beats of the measures. Instead, the lower strings have their three quarter note arpeggio line, then the flute and violins enter with their bar of three quarter notes. Beethoven repeats the pattern one time and then, finally, we get some semblance of the triple rhythm beginning in measure 136. Here the winds provide off beats to the down beats in the basses. And simultaneously, he has the inner strings commence brief antiphonal eighth note patterns.

In this short 20 measure passage we move from accents every other beat as the strings bring us to the portion that’s missing the downbeats. After four bars of this the composer hits every other beat for another four bars creating a dramatic rhythmic equivalent of upsetting an apple cart. The piece then offers a gentle return to 3/4 for another four measures before the more traditional rhythmic pattern returns at measure 136. It’s a microcosm of the composer’s genius in so many ways, but here especially in its rhythmic manipulation.

Even Faster Rousing Triple Time in Beethoven

As long as we are already examining this stunning piece of early nineteenth century music, the scherzo of the “Eroica” also has a notated passage when, in Example 59.2, the rapid rhythm goes from three (Actually it is performed so fast that is is played in 1.) to alla breve for four measures.

Example 59.2 Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 3 (“Eroica), Movement 3 (375–400)
John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Archiv

59.2 Beethoven - Symphony 3, Mvmt 3 (375-400) Score Page

Click score page to enlarge.

The word “iconoclast” is often and rightly used to refer to Herr Beethoven. As the movement is beginning to come to an end, the composer throws in these few measures in cut-time. The previous brief passage is syncopated with the accent on the second beat of the phrase, but the audience has already become acclimated to it. Perhaps wanting to assure the audience that there are still unknown gems in which to delight, he takes the what is basically a descending arpeggio and stretches it in alla breve. And this triple meter passage that is impudent enough to accent the second beats of each measure, for a couple of seconds aggressively moves to straightforward duple meter for the same melody.

It’s a passage that, once heard, is almost impossible to forget.

Fantastique Symphonic Accents

Before examining some more recent symphonic works, I want to point out that simply shifting stressors in a score do not need to be notated in a different rhythm. As heard in Example 59.1 by the sforzandos in the first movement of the “Eroica,” they can simply be an accent on an unexpected note. The passage in Example 59.3 shows this quite clearly in the final movement of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.

Example 59.3 Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Movement 5, Witches’ Round Dance (1 – 16)
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA Living Stereo

59.3 Berlioz - Symphony Fantastique Witches Round Dance (1-16) Score Page

Click score page to enlarge.

The composer’s program informs the listener that this movement is entitled “A Witches’ Sabbath.” During the movement the composer even takes an idea from Beethoven by introducing a cut-time measure in the movement’s 6/8 time.

Later in the movement beginning with a fugal section, the composer gives some syncopated accented chords, predominantly in the brass, that pay no attention to the fugue. They are there to keep the audience interested and again to throw off our sense of equilibrium. (Plus it gives the brass a chance to show off. And do they ever!)


Purists love to point out when something is out of place or incorrect. This malady can range from an editor correcting an author’s manuscript or a script supervisor on a film assuring that continuity is maintained from one take to another. In fact, there are treatises devoted to pointing out when an actor’s shirt collar is buttoned down in one shot and not in another in the same scene. Or a window curtain is hanging one way in one camera angle, but not in another for the same scene. These inconsistencies can drive these purists crazy. On the other hand, purists who consistently feel the need to point out inconsistencies can drive others crazy. Yet, there are things that need to be right. Brakes on a truck or heart surgery need a purist/perfectionist to assure adherence to the goal of keeping people safe.

When the George Roy Hill film The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford premiered in 1973, I can remember hearing purists complain that using Scott Joplin’s music for a film that is set in the depths of the Great Depression was wrong. Joplin wrote most of his rags between the 1890s and into World War I before his demise in 1917. The purists didn’t make a big deal about it, but I remember hearing from some that they thought it was simply wrong.

Yet, for one purist I knew this changed when she actually saw the film and realized that the music worked perfectly in context. She then explained that she’d been a bit of an ass and provided a brief Mea culpa.

This is all to introduce one more piece of syncopation in ragtime. Example 59.4 is just a few measures from the second section of Joplin’s “The Cascades Rag” from 1904. The syncopated notes are briefly highlighted simply to show the way the accent comes on an unexpected portion of the beat, just before it in these cases.

Example 59.4 Scott Joplin: “The Cascades Rag” (29–36)
Morten Gunnar Larsen, youtube

It was a time in popular music when ragtime was a national phenomenon, but so were the marches of John Philip Sousa. It seems that knowing where the downbeat was as well as enjoying the irregular rhythms of syncopation worked well for listeners.

Moving away from 4/4

Sometimes a composer will purposely write a section or even an entire work in an irregular rhythm. Although most popular pieces are written for their danceability in 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8, there are some less frequently written pieces in other rhythms. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s almost radical “Take Five” and the theme to Mission Impossible are both famously in 5/4.

In the 1960s a young Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote what was then known as a “Rock Musical,” called Jesus Christ Superstar. The show has several numbers in irregular rhythms. Example 59.5 is a brief portion of the bridge of one of the opening numbers entitled “Heaven On Their Minds.” The song starts in 4/4, but moves to 7/8 for the bridge.

Example 59.5 Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Heaven On Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar
Carl Anderson, youtube

For the listener who’s not focused on the beat, the toe-tapping can momentarily go awry.

Shifting the (Rhythmic) Sands

Example 59.6 plays a simple unharmonized melody whose main theme is in 7/8. The initial 6 note phrase is repeated twice, before an extension that tosses in a bar of 2/4. This entire passage is then played again verbatim up a Perfect fourth.

Example 59.6 Mystery in 7/8

It’s not a big mystery and I’m sure anyone can guess what the piece is. I suggest listening to Example 59.7 to hear the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald sing the melody—in 4/4, the way it was written.

Example 59.7 George Gershwin: “Fascinating Rhythm”
Ella Fitzgerald, youtube

The trick that Gershwin plays on his listener for this tune is to bring in the melody an eighth note sooner than expected, as though it might have been written in 7/8. This arrangement has a solid 4/4 beat that only works to enhance the syncopated melody.

The genius is not just playing rhythmic games with the listener. It’s in the mastery of providing straight, listenable melodies, but with the rhythmic equivalent of a “blue note.” We know the rhythm, but it’s so well enhanced by shifting its emphasis.

Hidden Accents in Rhapsody in Blue

In my previous article I focused exclusively on one passage in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Although I reviewed many different recording styles, I was most interested in the upper woodwind passage.

This consisted of two eighth note chords followed by an eighth rest. This 1½ beat pattern then repeats in a similar fashion to the tune in “Fascinating Rhythm.” It starts too early. In Example 59.8 you can hear just the upper woodwinds synthesized, but you can view the entire score.

Example 59.8 George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (137–147)
Synthesized upper woodwinds only

59.8 Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue 137-147 Score Page

Click score page to enlarge.

It’s not an extremely important element in the passage, which is rich in its eighth note melody interspersed with quartet note triplets and relatively standard jazz syncopation. Nevertheless, it contributes in its own unique way to the overall rhythm, helping the different elements of the scoring to congeal. Listen to it in Example 59.9.

Example 59.9 George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (137–147)
David Golub, piano, Mitch Miller, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra, Arabesque

Before closing, I’d like to point out a small element of the score that prepares us, if only subconsciously, for the cross rhythms that are to come in just the opening few measures. Example 59.10 has the lower woodwinds and brass introducing one of the motifs that return throughout the work.

Example 59.10 George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, (11–15)
David Golub, piano, Mitch Miller, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra, Arabesque

59.10 Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue 11-16 Score Page

Click score page to enlarge.

It may be a little hard to hear, but note the timpani. Unlike the strong accents on one and three of these few bars, the timpani is playing a 3 beat pattern, sort of a precursor to the upper woodwind section in Example 59.9 above.

Although there is a wide variety of interpretations of Rhapsody in Blue, the work has at its core an amalgam of classical (or symphonic) elements and jazz elements. This manipulation of the rhythm early in the work introduces the listener to both of these.

The Rhapsody was written at a time of upheaval in the classical music world. The features of atonality and of jazz both strongly influenced many composers of the period, Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky among them.


In reviewing examples from the early nineteenth century into the twentieth century, we’ve heard what throwing the listener a rhythmic curve ball can do. It adds spice, throws off what may become overly familiar and can add some unexpected joy to a work. And we’ve heard this in examples from popular music as well as symphonic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration. The survey will continue in the next post with works from other twentieth century composers. Please let me know if you have questions or comments.

Matthew Yasner


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