I got Rhythm. I got Music…who could ask for anything more?

– Ira Gershwin

 

CHAPTER AIM: Discovering the pleasures of being off-beat.

 

3.57- 5.59   Piano Introduction  

 

Our Gershwin piece clearly has a strong regular beat. Your foot can happily tap away to it. Our Bach piece also had a regular rhythm, but it was more consistent and uniform. 

This music is different. The rhythm has a cheeky, ironic lilt. 

Much of this effect comes from the use of a staple of jazz-inspired rhythms: the off-beat. There is a classical equivalent term, the ‘Up Beat‘, which comes from the weak beat when the conductor raises his baton – the upbeat – before bringing it down for the strong beat of each bar.

 

 

Off-Beat

I got Rhythm (excerpt)  

He Got Rhythm

He Got Rhythm

 

Rather than defining the off-beat through words, let’s rather hear it in action. To do this, let’s take a quick example from what was in fact George Gershwin’s favorite of his own songs,  I Got Rhythm (lyrics by brother, Ira).

 

Just clap along. Now listen for the ‘I’ that begins each line. Even if you clap at fairly brisk pace, Judy Garland’s entry should come between your clapped beat.

That’s because the song lyric begins each line just off the main beat.

On the off-beat.

That means the lyric bounces into the song. It swings. This is the rhythm of jazz. It’s what gets your foot tapping.

 

If we go right back to the beginning of the our own piece, the horn’s introduction plays a couple of off-beats:

0.00-3.57   First 4 mins  

Trouble is, there are no other instruments playing. So it doesn’t particularly sound like an off-beat.

If we move a few seconds later, to the entry of the trumpet, there’s more instruments in the mix. That makes the rhythm a little clearer, and the off-beats a little easier to spot:

0.15-0.23  Trumpet entry  

 

It’s a slow tempo so it’s still not obvious. But the beat is there. Listen for the clarinets coming in on the main beat, and you’ll hear the trumpet (0.05) arriving just before. On the off-beat.

As we follow the trumpet, we find it continues talking in the same rhythmic language:

0.52-1.33     More trumpet  

  • 0.02     The trumpet enters on the off-beat
  • 0.09     Again
  • 0.13      Again
  • 0.22     And again
  • 0.29     And again

And it’s not just the entrance. Listen to that high squeal from the trumpet at 0.24. The high notes of the phrase hit off the main beat twice (0.24 and 0.25). That drags the trumpet against its the main rhythm, and that makes it swing.

 

This is not just a flash-in-the-pan effect. It’s happening everywhere, all the time. Even the quiet background music uses off-beats all the time. Listen to the way the clarinets ascend at the start of that clip (listen behind the trumpet):

0.52-0.57    Clarinets   

  • 0.01     Here
  • 0.02     Here
  • 0.04     And here

The technical term for all this is syncopation.

 

 

Syncopation

Elite Syncopations, Scott Joplin excerpt  

 

Syncopation happens when rhythmic stresses occurs at unexpected beats in the music. Which usually means the off-beat. The effect is naturally enhanced when there’s a strong regular rhythm underneath.

Minstrel entertainment

Minstrel entertainment

It’s a core concept, rooted at the heart of the rhythms of Jazz music. And just like with classical music ( Bach 2), when you trace the rhythmic origins of the music, you find dance.

 

Dances on the slave plantation, like cakewalks, jigs and hops, were key precursors to ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Swing’, early forms of jazz. It’s a rhythmic characteristic we associate with the music of Scott Joplin, the first composer to cement the style into his work. Joplin died just a few years before this concerto was written.

Composers since the Middle Ages have used syncopation. But under the influence of jazz, these rhythms are fused into the DNA of the music of composers like Scott Joplin, and our own George Gershwin.

 

 

Enter the Piano

3.57- 5.59   Piano Introduction   

Grace note

Grace note

Syncopation works best against a strong natural beat. And we get that emphatically with the piano’s entry 4 minutes into the piece. Now the music speeds up, and we enter more obviously rhythmically active territory. Which makes the syncopation more pronounced, and easier to spot.

 

Take a closer look at that piano entry. Those rather abrasive first three notes are played with grace notes. That’s a note played just fractionally before the main note.

Now that first main piano note itself is already coming in on the off-beat. So this very first note of the piano – or to be more accurate the first two notes of the piano, enter with a kind of double syncopation. It’s funky.

 

We can track those grace notes one by one:

3.57-4.35   Piano entry shorter   

  • 0.00     All the first three piano notes are grace notes.
  • 0.03     Here the first note is
  • 0.05     And again the first note
  • 0.09     All three notes
  • 0.18     All three notes here again
  • 0.21     The first note
  • 0.22     Again the first note
  • 0.27     Again the first note

 

There’s some great examples of grace notes that come just a little later in the same section. This time, Gershwin switches to the left hand (the piano bass), and uses as many as three grace notes:

4.43-5.14   Grace notes galore   

  • 0.01     As before in the piano right hand
  • 0.03     Now played in the piano’s bass
  • 0.05     Again in the bass
  • 0.11     Again (and 0.13 and 0.16 and 0.18)
  • 0.19     Three grace notes now play in the bass, adding a slightly different syncopated texture
  • 0.20     And again (and 0.21 and 0.22)

Remember, many of these notes are already hitting on the off-beat. Those grace notes are adding syncopated texture, and giving the music groove.

And while we’re here, have a listen to the strings swinging in rhythm against that steady climb of the piano from 0.23. It’s all a rhythmic treat.

 

 

Melodic Rhythm

There’s another phrase we hear constantly in this section.  Here it is isolated in the piano:

 

The phrase steps up then down. Now the highest note of your melody is usually its strongest moment, so you expect that to come on the main beat.

But here the lower and weaker melodic note, the first note, comes on the beat, the stronger and higher note comes off the beat. That boosts the syncopation of the phrase.

 

Below I play the phrase three times on a piano with a metronome.The first time I use Gershwin’s rhythm, but immediately after I switch the rhythm:

Can you hear how it changes the effect of the rhythm? How it makes it more pedestrian?

 

The short phrase (or motif as it is termed musically) is a great rhythmic (and melodic) unit Gershwin uses throughout the movement. Is this a melody? Yes. Does it have a rhythmic identity? Yes of course it does. Remember, rhythm melody and harmony are not separate facets of music, but intertwined concepts. This short phrase is highly rhythmic, and its effect on the music is likewise rhythmic.

 

Have a listen as we follow our new phrase through this middle section:

3.57- 5.59   Piano Introduction   

  • 0.05    Here it comes first, then 0.10, 0.12, 0.14, 0.23, 0.28, 0.30
  • 0.32    The flute echoes the phrase right after, and again at 0.34
  • 0.36     Phrase begins five times with an oboe
  • 0.43     Played begins five times with the piano
  • 0.48     Piano (again at 0.51 but its quiet in the piano right hand)
  • 0.53     Violins sweep down in an inverted form of the melody, whilst piano plays it five times
  • 0.57     Again five times in the piano
  • 1.13     Five times from an oboe

Etc etc.

 

 

There’s more?!

Even if we just take the first 25 seconds of our piano entry, we still haven’t used up all the examples. Have another listen:

3.57-4.35   Piano entry shorter    

  • 0.07    A quick rasp of brass on the off-beat.
  • 0.08    Listen to the woodwind (quieter) playing a syncopated beat just before the piano crashes in
  • 0.11     The high note of that piano phrase enters off the beat
  • 0.13     And again
  • 0.16     And again, a rasp from the brass
  • 0.17     The woodwind swing in again.
  • 0.19     Woodwind swing as they descend
  • 0.23     Woodwind again swing down, but quieter…

There’s not a bar of this music that doesn’t reveal some kind of syncopation in action.

 

 

Fascinating Rhythm

3.57- 5.59   Piano Introduction    

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The fact is, once you start really listening, you’ll hear syncopation everywhere in this piece. It is welded into the musical grammar of the music. It’s in the chromosomes, hard-wired into its DNA.

And it’s especially evident here, in this wonderful piano entry. There’s a pumping main beat in the bass, to set against all the syncopated elaborations.

 

And because the section builds, so does the rhythmic pleasure. It’s a section that drives in strength and complexity, as piano, strings, and woodwind exchange themes.

It just gets bigger, faster, better…

 

This is music that is just great fun. Part of that reason is these are rhythms we know, that we recognise and enjoy. We just may not have associated them with the classical concert hall.

That’s part of a popular vs classical debate that we’ll get right into next chapter, when we turn to Melody.

 

 

RECOMMENDATIONS
  • Beethoven, being Beethoven, seems to have miraculously discovered Ragtime a hundred years earlier, in his final piano sonata. I’ve cued up the clip to the section.