Suggestions for Playing Mixed Meter

 

Note: There is a link to a demo of Wednesday’s piano arrangement near the bottom of this post.

I posted an arrangement Wednesday with some mixed meter, and I wanted to offer a few thoughts about mixed meter and how to play it.

[This post is a bit technical.  If you don’t want the nitty gritty, skip to “Ways to Simplify” at the bottom.]

But first, what is mixed meter?

What is Mixed Meter?

Mixed Meter is simply changing back and forth between different time signatures.

For instance, it could be changing from 6/8 to 3/4,  or 3/8 to 5/8, or any combination of time signatures.

So, why use it a hymn arrangement.

Sense of Excitement, Movement

I was looking for a way to communicate the energy and excitement which accompanies the fact that Christ rose again.  Christ’s resurrection is pivotal to our faith and it should put in us an excitement and hope that fuels our faith.

But quite often, I think we take away rhythmic features of a song that communicate power for the sake of being conservative.  When we do, we rob the song of the potential of powerfully impacting emotion – emotion that can encourage God’s people.

Mixed Meter is often used to create a feeling of energy.  This energy can communicate a feeling of celebration (which is why I used it here) or urgency,

For urgency, think Mission Impossible theme song. It is in 5/4, but within each measure there is a 3/4 + 2/4 division; which can be further broken down to 3/8 + 3/8 + 2/8 + 2/8 feel.

mission impossible

(This post is not intended to be a full treatment of the subject of appropriateness. I’ll simply say that, as with anything, these elements can be abused. But it is my belief that we shouldn’t rid church music of certain elements completely. How much is appropriate for a church should be decided by church leadership.  Maybe that should be another post sometime. And I wouldn’t want a Mission Impossible feel in a service, just sayin’. )

But along with the energy it creates, it can be particularly challenging to play.

So, how do you learn to play a piece with mixed meter?

Break it down to the Constant

Music can almost always be boiled down to a basic feel of either 2 or 3.

When dealing with mixed meters, the best thing to do is boil the rhythm down to its most basic constant.

By that I mean determine what stays the same, even when the time signatures are changing.

In this piece, the eighth note is the constant.

When playing mixed meter, the best thing to do is to find out what the eighth note is doing.

The 6/8 time signature has 6 eighth notes divided into two sets of three.  The 3/4 time signature has 6 eighth notes, divided into three sets of two.

 

The 6/8 has this feel:  1-2-3 1-2-3, the ones being the beat of the measure.

mixed meter68

The 3/4 has feel a 1-2-3 feel, the quarter note being the beat.  The beat can be divided into eighth notes: 1-2 1-2 1-2.

mixed meter34

So, any time, if you are having trouble, you can think of the eighth note tick.

When playing mixed meter, the best thing to do is to find out what the eighth note is doing. Click To Tweet

Dominant Meter of the Section

In Christ the Lord is Risen Today, I didn’t change time signatures quickly, but chose the time signature of a section based on what the dominant rhythm was in that section.  Then, if there is a different division in that section, it is in contrast to the dominant feel.

Instead of changing meter every few bars (measures), I chose to divide it by phrase and name it by the dominant time signature.  So, you have the feel changing within those sections.

For instance, in the first section (the intro, bars 1-8), the rhythm alternates between groupings of 3 and groupings of 2.  The dominant feel is that of 1-2-3  4-5-6, with the 1-2  3-4  5-6 contrasting.

mixed meter68 contrast

But bars 9-16 have the 1-2-3 (quarter note) feel, with the dotted quarter rhythm contrasting the 3/4 feel.

mixed meter34contrast

If you keep in mind the eight note constant, and that the notation is simply there to show you where to place the emphasis, you’ll get it right.

R.H/ L.H. Two Against Three

This merits a post of its own, but there are some sections with a 2 feel in the R.H. and a 3 feel in the left hand. (See ways to simplify below).

If all this makes your head spin, here are a few ways to simplify.

Ways to Simplify

  1. Use the right hand rhythm in both hands. If you find it challenging to have the 3 against 2 feel, then you can choose one or the other and use it in both hands.  It would make sense to use whichever rhythm the melody line uses.
  2. Straighten out the left hand.  In Christ the Lord is Risen Today, in the last verse, soften or straighten out the L.H. octaves.
  3. Listen to a recording. If you want to tackle the rhythm, but are having trouble doing so from a written piece of sheet music, listen to a recording to hear how it feels. I posted a demo with the music to help with that.

Let me know any thoughts here.

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