Thursday, 9 February 2012

Three Out of Four Ain't So Bad

I should warn you that this post delves into musical theory a bit, but I'll do my best to explain it to the non-musicians. And not to be so patronising again.

Whilst I was putting together my last single, "Dance of the May", I was reminded of something well known to most musicians but, to my mind, not adequately explained.

The single is in triple time, 3/4 to be precise. This is not something you come across very often in modern music. Old English folk music, by which "Dance of the May" was inspired, is almost entirely in triple time, and it is far more prevalent in many other folk genres, and of course many classical works - the great Strauss waltzes being the best known examples. But scour the vast array of modern, or should I say, "popular" compositions and examples are few and far between. Now before you shower me with examples, yes I know there are many and I shall be quoting a few, but it has to be said that they are the exceptions to the overwhelming use of 4/4 across the board.

The science bit, for those of you who do not know what I am talking about: most modern music breaks down easily into groups of four beats with emphasis on the first, I always quote the Bee Gees here as an example: "ha | ha | ha | ha |" (there's four beats) "stayin'a | live | stayin'a | live |" and there's another four. Triple time is where it breaks down into groups of three. By definition, a popular example if hard to pin down, but maybe the best known would be the verse section of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -"pic |ture | your |" (three) "self| on | a|" (three) and so on.

So why this seeming prejudice against triple time? Well there are many theories on that, one of the more popular being that to dance to music in 3/4 time actually requires some degree of practice since the beat is not divisible by the number of feet that most of us have. I think there probably is something in that. But anyone can sway, and what is more, and this is my personal opinion, a well executed 3/4 waltz is possibly the most beautiful and intoxicating form of dance that there is.

My argument is positive, however. I think that triple time, be it 3/4, 6/8 or any of the other esoteric variations that exist can and should be used to produce more modern music alongside the more usual "common" time. (The practical difference between 3/4 and 6/8 is still subject to debate by many - check out this video by a rather impressive young musician attempting to explain it, with limited success. I've done a music theory diploma and I still don't quite get it.) A triple time piece has a feel all of its own and opens up a universe of new possibilities of melody and rhythm. It undoubtedly is better suited to ballads or slower numbers (although check out Hendrix's "Manic Depression" for an extreme exception to this rule) and on the rare occasions where you do hear it in music from the modern era you probably don't even realise it. But you know there is something very special about the feel of the piece. Check out David Gray's sublime "This Year's Love" as an excellent example, where the triple time adds a wistful swaying element that would simply not be there in 4/4. Another famous one is "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues. Supposedly in 12/8 time, but get real guys, it is as 3/4 as the Blue Danube. But it sounds somehow "different" to most other music of the day. That's the triple time.

I love triple time and use it far more often than is probably healthy for a "modern" composer. So far there are three tracks from my limited catalogue that use it, namely "Dance of the May", "Île de la Cité" (from Soundscapes) and "Reprieve" (from Finest Hour) and there will probably be many more to come. I didn't plan this, I just came up with what I thought was a great melody and then realised I had strayed into the world of three.

So this is my call for composers in all genres to stop ignoring triple time and embrace its possibilities. I know this call will fall on deaf ears in the more dance oriented genres, which is fair enough, but otherwise there is no reason not to try it once in a while. You never know, you might like it. And so may your listeners.

But they probably won't know why.

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