Tool #24: Asymmetric and Mixed Meters

Now I’d like to talk about two (really one in my use of them) of my favorite compositional devices: asymmetric and mixed meters.  The goals I use them for are throwing rhythms off, motivic development, and playing around with perception of beats and time.

My main use of them:

Asymmetric and mixed meters can be extremely effective if you create what would be a symmetrically-metered phrase, and then chop off  or add onto the end.  This can be done with explicitly stating a meter (eg. 4/4 becomes 7/8, 9/8, 2/4+3/8, or 3/4+3/8) or doing it with the material (eg. the musical material is in 7/8 or 9/8 but the time signature of the piece remains in 4/4 on paper).  This process of adding or subtracting beats can of course occur anywhere in the measure or motive, and the result is a phrase that throws off rhythms and perceptions.  This can be used for many effects, including:

  • Shortening a phrase down to a basic motive (eg. repeating the phrase and subtracting a half a beat on each repeat)
  • Lengthening a motive to a phrase (the opposite of the previous bullet)
  • Creating unpredictability in time (eg. adding or subtracting ends of phrases ad lib so the listener has to guess when the phrase will end)
  • Subtracting or adding rhythms or pitches (eg. moving from one set of pitch classes to another by subtracting certain PCs in the phrase or adding in extra PCs to new beats)
  • Signifying a change in direction in the form of a piece (eg. a common theme gets truncated, more rhythmical, and darker as it moves to a darker part of the piece)

In more general uses/terms:

Asymmetric and mixed meters are useful in motivic development because:
  • They allow manipulation of rhythm but can still retain basic components of the motive
  • They can showcase certain pitches based on which beats they land on, thus emphasizing the development and spelling it out for the listener
  • They can move a rhythmical structure from simple to complex, and back again
Asymmetric and mixed meters in general work well in:
  • Creating a sense of timelessness (eg. expressionistic pointillism, arhythmical, and durational pieces to name three styles)
  • Creating a perceptible process (adding a note of a synthetic scale on each repeat of a phrase until the full scale is revealed)
  • Creating “edges” in the music (eg. taking a consonant, symmetrically-metered phrase and adding and subtracting beats and dissonance)
  • Creating accents or “hits” in ensemble writing (eg. an 8/8 phrase with hits on beats 1, 4, and 6)
  • Making a piece more interesting
  • Making the piece more demanding for the performer(s)
  • Making a piece more complex

Ways to create asymmetric and mixed meters:

  • Create a phrase and shorten/lengthen it
  • Create a motive that has a natural flow (eg. a rise and fall, or a return to a modal center) that would fit well within an asymmetric meter
  • Create 2 or more short motives in duple and triple meters and combine them into a phrase
  • Add or subtract rhythmic values from within a melody
  • Add or subtract rests from a phrase
  • Create a canon at a subdivision (eg. canon in 3/4 at the eighth note) and use the canon to create a new phrase
  • Use a pedal tone that repeats with “hits” or higher notes on random accentuated beats or subdivisions
  • Create the time signatures beforehand (eg. the first 5 numbers of the Fibonacci series as the numerators) and fill in the material after the time signatures are generated
  • Take a preexisting tune in 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, or 6/8 and modify it, or put it in an asymmetric/mixed meter pattern (eg. 4/4 becomes 5/8, or 6/8 becomes 2/4+3/4)
  • For a more complex phrase, create an asymmetrically-metered phrase and don’t start it on the first note (eg. a phrase with 5 notes goes note numbers 2-3-4-5-1  instead of 1-2-3-4-5 within the phrase)
  • (There are many, many more ways of course.)

I hope this has given you some reasons to implement asymmetric and mixed meters more often, and that you have some places to start generating these fascinating devices.

Thanks for reading!


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