If you’ve studied contemporary music you probably have come across definitions of time that aren’t based on 4 (eg. not breves, whole notes, half notes, quarters, eighths, etc.).  Some composers use other definitions of time that aren’t tuplets but aren’t regular notes (including tied or dotted notes).

Two beat durations with which I’m currently experimenting are sixth and twelfth notes.  Sixth notes are equivalent to one quarter note in a quarter note triplet, and twelfth notes are one eighth note in an eighth note triplet.

How are they notated? – They can either be achieved through metric modulation, or writing an incomplete tuplet.  The metric modulation is easier to do in Finale, but making a “2/6” measure is (or so I’ve read) possible.  For example, in one piece I made a “7/12” measure by using a metric modulation that turned the eighth note triplet into the eighth note, and writing a measure of 7/8.  Another way, employed by composers such as Thomas Ades, is to write a bar metered in (eg.) 2/6.

What effects can they have?  What are some ways in which they can be used? – They are effective in throwing a listener’s ear off, since most listeners are usually used to divisions of 4 or 2.  This is particularly effective if they’re thrown in the middle of a “groove” (eg. adding a 5/6 bar in the middle of two 7/8 bars that would normally form a rhythmic groove).  They can also help make open/free passages even freer, by adding in extra abnormal/wide spaces in the passage.  They can also help align instruments progressing at different tempi (if you’re willing to do some math).  These are just a few examples of their possibilities.

Some people argue that these are esoteric techniques, but I argue that using only divisions of 4 or 2 can be just as esoteric to life; in other words, what is more artificial and removed from life than dividing everything by the numbers 4 or 2?  There is more to life that we can describe through music, and life certainly does not confine itself to distinct metrical divisions (just as it doesn’t confine itself to equal temperament).

What do you think?  I’ve found these divisions/beats to be rewarding, but is this this something you’d try?

Happy Composing,

Dan