In the social dynamics of various World cultures, two general types of behavioral traits may be observed. First, a cultural type exists that is dominated by the forces of nature and the environment with the attendant culture having a reverence for nature. Second, a cultural type exists that dominates the forces of nature and the environment with the attendant culture having low regard for nature. Both cultural personality traits are influenced by religious, governmental and educational institutions within the respective cultures.
A music of any particular World culture tends to be reflective of the traits of the culture. If a culture is dominated by the forces of nature and the environment its music may enjoy a static quality. If a culture dominates the forces of nature and the environment its music may have aspects of action and energy about it.
Western society was shaped by the ideas and institutions of Europe, the Middle East,
and Africa. All of these cultural forces merged in the West during the Renaissance
(1450-1600). Western society is a goal-oriented society. Its languages, social
institutions and artistic media reflect an image of controlled and purposeful motion. This
"purposeful motion "created a dynamism seen clearly in the various historical
styles of Western music and also found in many non-Western musics. Beginning with
compositional styles that exist immediately before the Renaissance, Western music has been
characterized as a music of "purposeful syntax" -- a music planned and designed
to occupy space and time with controlled and goal-oriented sonic movement.
The music of many World cultures is notated (written on paper) in a music notation system so that the music may be performed again and again. Some musics are transferred from one generation to another by a rote tradition (memory). Styles of rote traditions in music tend to change very gradually over long periods of time. Today, many musics from rote tradition cultures have been converted into music notation systems by music scholars.
Enjoyment and understanding of most musics is not dependent upon the ability to read and interpret written music notation. Reading music notation may lead to "deeper" areas of musical awareness; however, notational literacy in not a pre-requisite for an appreciation of any music.
Meter is a result of the periodic effect of pulse (or beat) in music. Music does not require a pulse (or beat) to be music. Much music has no pulse. Music that does have pulse (or beat) always has beats that receive emphasis by being louder or longer than other surrounding beats.
To get a sense of how meter is created clap a steady beat with your hands. Begin clapping louder on one beat, and softer on the following beat. Repeat this pattern again and again. Try clapping two softer beats after the louder one. Try clapping groups of four, five, and six.
The process of patterning beats with a stressed, accented beat (a louder and/or longer sound in comparison to other surrounding sounds) followed by a series of weaker beats is called meter. The stronger accented beat of a pattern (the louder or longer one) is called the downbeat. An accent of length is called an agogic accent. An accent of loudness is called a dynamic accent.
Meter is counted with Arabic numbers. Count one is known as the downbeat. Two patterns of two-beat meter (duple meter) are counted 1-2 | 1-2 (the "|" mark separates one group of two and the "_" mark represents an accent of loudness or length). Three patterns of three-beat meter (triple meter) are counted 1-2-3 | 1-2-3 | 1-2-3 | 1-2-3. Four patterns of four-beat meter (quadruple meter) are counted 1-2-3 4 | 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4. Five patterns of five-beat meter (quintuple meter) are counted 1-2-3-4-5 | 1-2-3-4-5 | 1-2-3-4-5 | 1-2-3-4-5 | 1-2-3-4-5. Patterns may be created in this manner with any number of numbers limited only by practical considerations.
The most common meters in Western music are duple, triple and quadruple meters. Quintuple, sextuple and septuple meters (meters of five, six and seven) are also common in the West. Certain non-Western musics (for example, the music of India, Indonesia and Africa) use longer meters regularly.
One single pattern of any meter (for example, 1-2-3 4 of 1-2-3 4 | 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4) is known as a measure. Music consists of a series of measures linked together to form a phrase much the same as a series of words are linked together to form a sentence. Most music is metered with periodic beats called regular meter. Some music features meter comprised of patterns of beats of different lengths called irregular meter. Dance music of eastern European Balkan states is comprised mostly of irregular meters and dance music of Greece features occasional irregular meters.
Meter is a very ancient musical element and extends back into human prehistory. Ancient poets may have borrowed the idea for metered poetry from musical meter. Say the words of your favorite pop song in rhythm and you will sense poetic meter as well as musical meter. Musical meter seems to have originated with the perception of the human heartbeat. Ancient songs were metered as well as the texts of ancient plays. Meter is a metaphor for all the periodic aspects of the human life experience.
Pre-Christian religions used meter in their music; however, with the advent of Christianity in the West, meter was disavowed for use during worship by the early Church fathers as pagan as was the use of musical instruments. Unmetered vocal chant replaced a variety of types of metered music and was viewed as the "voice of God" until the 12th century A. D.
Meter contains, as one of its various properties, pulse (or beat). The beat of a meter may be regular (patterns with the same lengths), or irregular (patterns with different lengths). Meters with a regular beat are called regular meters and meters with irregular beats are, not surprisingly, called irregular meters (also, "odd" meters).
Meter involves two other properties of music -- accent and periodicity. Musical "beat" is grouped into repeated patterns by accent involving the first beat of a particular unit of time (measure or bar). The first beat in a unit (louder and/or longer) is known as the downbeat. A downbeat delineates one unit of meter which is known as a measure or bar (interchangeable terms).
Measures of music have a periodic aspect to them in that they are repeated one after the other. Measures (units of time) are repeated while the material within measures (notes, rhythms, and others) change as the music develops.
Tempo (an Italian word) identifies the rate of speed of the beat of music and is measured by the number of beats per minute. There is a machine known by the term metronome which emits a steady short "click" or flash that may be adjusted to various rates of speed (tempi), thereby indicating at what speed (how fast or slow) a composition should proceed.
A beat may be slow or fast. Human perception perceives a range of tempo speed from about 30 to 240 beats per minute. "Romantic" songs tend to have a medium tempo, while dance music may range from slow to fast tempo. March music reflects a comfortable marching pace -- about 120 beats per minute. Faster tempi (plural of tempo) are more energizing while slower tempi are more soothing. Tempo is an important ingredient in the mood of any example of music, whether it be aggressive or calming in effect with excitement generally revealed through a fast tempo while solemnity is always revealed through a slow tempo.
In music terminology and notation tempo indications are most often expressed in the Italian language. The Italians were the first to develop written tempo and mood indications in music. Prior to 1600 tempo markings were practically unknown in music notation. One of the first composers to use modern tempo markings was the Italian composer Adriano Banchieri (1568-1634). During the mid-19th century composers began using their native language for tempo and mood indications as a political expression of the emerging nationalism of the period. In the 20th century tempo and mood indications are a mixture of Italian terms and the native language of the composer.
Tempo indications are of no particular interest to the average listener of music except that they are used to designate various movements of multi-movement works and are often used in the titles of compositions from the common practice period of music (1800 A. D. to the present).
Arranged below is a list of the basic Italian terms referring to tempi in music followed by the derivative forms of the basic terms, and the modifiers that add descriptive directions to the basic and derivative terms.
Italian Terms largo: very slow, broad, large lento: slow adagio: slow, comfortable, easy andante: moderately slow, a walking pace moderato: moderate allegro: fast, cheerful, joyful vivace: lively, quick presto: very fast, rapid
Derivative Terms larghetto: slightly slower than largo andantino: slightly slower than andante allegretto: slightly slower than allegro prestissimo: extremely fast, as fast as possible
Modifiers of Tempo agitato: agitated (e.g. Allegro agitato) animato: animated (e.g. Allegro animato) appassionato: passionately (e.g. Andante appassionato) assai: very (e.g. Allegro assai) cantabile: singing (e.g. Adagio cantabile) con brio: with spirit (e.g. Allegro con brio) con fuoco: with fire (e.g. Allegro con fuoco) con moto: with motion (e.g. Allegro con moto) espressivo: expressively (e.g. Adagio espressivo) grazioso: with grace (e.g. Andante grazioso) ma: but (e.g. Moderato, ma con brio) maestoso: majestically (e.g. Andante maestoso) marcato: marked, stressed (e.g. Andante marcato) molto: very, much (e.g. Molto allegro/Molto adagio) non: not (e.g. Allegro non troppo) non troppo: not too much (e.g. Allegro, ma non troppo) piu: more (e.g. Piu allegro) poco, un poco: little, a little (e.g. Poco adagio or Un poco piu adagio) sostenuto: sustained (e.g. Andante sostenuto, etc.)
At certain moments within a composition the beat may gradually speed up, slow down or be irregular. This happens most often in introductions at the beginning of pieces or during transition points within a piece. These tempo changes are expressed in Italian terms some examples of which are contained in the following table.
gradually becoming faster
gradually becoming slower
a flexible tempo of slight accelerandos and ritardandos
a note that is sustained longer than its notated value
All of the preceding terms are relative and approximate. Different musicians interpret them according to their personal tastes and moods. There is no definitively "correct" or "wrong" tempo for any musical piece; however, a tempo that is vastly far away from the "spirit" of the designated tempo will destroy the flow and cohesiveness of any musical composition.