Septuple meter

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21/8 as 3/4 with 7 subdivisions
21/8 as 7/4 with 3 subdivisions

Septuple meter (British: metre) or (chiefly British) septuple time is a meter with each bar (American: measure) divided into 7 notes of equal duration, usually 7/4 or 7/8 (or in compound meter, 21/8 time). The stress pattern can be 2+2+3, 3+2+2, or occasionally 2+3+2. A time signature of 21/8, however, does not necessarily mean that the bar is a compound septuple meter with seven beats, each divided into three. This signature may, for example, be used to indicate a bar of triple meter in which each beat is subdivided into seven parts. In this case, the meter is sometimes characterized as "triple septuple time".[1] It is also possible for a 21/8 time signature to be used for an irregular, or "additive" metrical pattern, such as groupings of 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 eighth notes. Septuple meter can also be notated by using regularly alternating bars of triple and duple or quadruple meters, for example 4/4 + 3/4, or 6/8 + 6/8 + 9/8, or through the use of "compound meters", in which two or three numerals take the place of the expected numerator 7, for example, (2 + 2 + 3)/8, or (5 + 2)/8.[2]


Before the 20th century, septuple time was rare in European concert music, but is more commonly found in European folk music and in other world cultures.

Asia and the Middle East[edit]

In the Thai dance-drama genre lakhon nok and the masked dance-drama khon there is a unique group of songs based on a rhythmic cycle of seven beats, quite unlike the usual rhythmic structures of Thai traditional music. Portions of this repertoire of songs in additive meter date back to the Ayudhia period (1350–1767).[3]

In the Carnatic music of south India, there are thirty-five tāla in five temporal species, multiplied by seven classes of measurement—one of the five species is septuple.[4] The classes of measurement in this "formal" system consist of seven basic tālas (called sūḷādi talas). Each of these is built from three types of component durations: the one-beat anudruta, the two-beat druta, and the variable laghu, which may have three (tisra), four (caturaśra), five (khaṇḍa), seven (miśra), or nine (saṅkīrṇa) beats, and accounts for the five temporal species of each tāla. Two of the resulting thirty-five forms have seven beats in all: the khaṇda form of Rūpaka tāla, with one druta and a five-beat (khaṇda) laghu: 2 + 5, and the tisra form of Tripuṭa, with a three-beat laghu and two druta: 3 + 2 + 2. Tisra Tripuṭa is one of the principal talas of the system, and so is often called simply by its basic name, Tripuṭa. Khaṇda Rūpaka, on the other hand, is a comparative rarity. The more common form, caturaśra Rūpaka, has a laghu of four beats and so a total beat pattern of 2 + 4.[5]

Carnatic music also has an "informal" system of tālas, which uses a selection of the formal tālas. These include the septuple Tripuṭa, to which is added a Cāpu (fast) version of it, called miśra Cāpu (3 + 2 + 2, or 3 + 4). Miśra Cāpu is one of the most characteristic rhythms in the music of southern India, accounting for well over half of the padam compositions by the 17th-century composer Kshetrayya, and occurs in some of the best-known kīrtanam works by Tyagaraja (1767–1847). The Hindustani tālas used in the north also include septuple patterns.[5] The tala Rupak, for example, has seven beats.[6] Tīvra (also known at Gīt-tāl) is also a septuple tāla. Two tālas, Dīpcandī and Jhūmrā, have fourteen beats in all, but are divided symmetrically into two halves of 3 + 4 beats each. The tālas Ādā-cautāl and Dhamār are also fourteen beats long, but the former is divided asymmetrically, and the latter is only partially symmetrical: It has several different patterns, the most common of which falls into two seven-beat halves, but with different internal divisions: 5 + 2 and (3) + 4, where the khālī (empty) beat marks the division of the cycle into two halves.[5]

Folk music in Turkey employs metres consisting of five, seven, or eleven pulses, as well as metres with irregular subdivisions.[7] In Turkish art music, the system of rhythmic modes called usul consist of rhythmic cycles of two to ten counting units. The pattern of seven beats is called devr-i hindi[8] (3+2+2) or devr-i turan (2+2+3).[citation needed]

Balkan folk music[edit]

Septuple rhythms are characteristic of some European folk idioms, particularly in the Balkan countries. An example from Macedonia is the traditional tune "Jovano Jovanke", which can be transcribed in 7/8.[9] Bulgarian dances are particularly noted for the use of a variety of irregular, or heterometric rhythms. The most popular of these is the rachenitsa, a type of khoro in a rapid septuple meter divided 2 + 2 + 3. In the Pirin area the khoro has a rhythm subdivided 3 + 2 + 2, and two varieties of it are the pravo makedonsko ("straight Macedonian") and the mazhka rachenitsa ("men’s rachenitsa"). Septuple rhythms are also found in Bulgarian vocal music, such as the koleda ritual songs sung by young men on Christmas Eve and Christmas to bless livestock, households, or specific family members.[10] The pattern 2+2+1+2 occurs in Bulgarian tunes like Eleno Mome (Елено Моме) and Petrunino horo (Петрунино хоро)[citation needed] cf. Bulgarian dances.

Such irregular meters are also found throughout Greece, where they are sometimes identified as originating in neighboring countries. For example, in Epirus, a district bordering Albania, there is a style of singing in imitation of the sound of Byzantine bells, that employs microtonal intervals and is described by the singers themselves as "Albanian" or "pastoral Vlach". The rhythms vary, but sometimes is in bars of seven beats, particularly in the area around Mount Parnassus. The 7/8 rhythm of the kalamatianos from the same region, however, is regarded as purely Greek.[11]

European art music[edit]

18th century[edit]

The last movement of Joseph Haydn's Piano Sonata XVI:12, written as early as the 1750s, has been claimed to use exclusively seven-measure units in its background, if not in its foreground. Performers typically choose a tempo such that the notated 3/8 measure sounds like a single beat, projecting a perception of septuple meter.[12]

19th century[edit]

Though rare in the 19th century, septuple metre is occasionally found. Two examples from the piano repertoire entirely in septuple meter are Fugue No. 24, from 36 Fugues for Piano by Anton Reicha (notated in regularly alternating cut time and 3/4 bars),[13] and the Impromptu, op. 32, no. 8, by Charles-Valentin Alkan, notated in 7/4 time.[14] The theme and first eight (of thirteen) Variations on a Hungarian Song Op. 21, No. 2 by Johannes Brahms is in septuple time, notated as regular alternations of 3/4 and common time, though various accenting factors often obscure the perceived metre.[15] In the last two of the five versions of "Promenade" from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky 7/4 is mixed irregularly with other metres: (4th Promenade) 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4, with a single 3/4 bar at the end; (5th Promenade) four pairs of regularly alternating 5/4 and 6/4, then an irregular mixture of 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4 to the end.[16]

Symphonic and choral works containing occasional septuple bars include the conjuration of soothsayers in L'enfance du Christ, op. 25 (1854) by Hector Berlioz, which "has a relatively extended passage of septuple metre (ten bars of 7/4, then three of 4/4 and three of 3/4; the pattern repeats with four each of 4/4 and 3/4)",[17] and the Dante Symphony by Franz Liszt, which has several bars in 7/4.[18]

An example of chamber music from the later 19th century is found in the Trio No. 3 for piano, violin and cello, op. 101, by Brahms. In the third movement (Andante grazioso), the main (outer) sections are in 7/4 (notated as a recurring 3/4 + 2/4 + 2/4), while the central section is in compound-quintuple time: 15/8 (notated as 9/8 + 6/8) with 9/8 turnarounds, and an eight-bar coda in 9/8.[19]

20th century[edit]

Igor Stravinsky's name is often associated with rhythmic innovation in the 20th century, and septuple meter is sometimes found in his music—for example, the closing "General Rejoicing" section (Allegro non troppo), from rehearsal 203 to rehearsal 209, in his ballet The Firebird (1910) is written uniformly in 7/4 time.[20] Much more characteristically, septuple bars in Stravinsky's scores are found in a context of constantly changing meters, as for example in his ballet The Rite of Spring (1911–13), where the object appears to be the combination of two- and three-note subdivisions in irregular groupings.[21] For example in Part II, third tableau, "Glorification of the Chosen Maiden", bars of 7/8 and 7/4 are interspersed with bars of 2/4, 3/8, 3/4, 4/8, 4/4, 5/8, 5/4, 6/8, 6/4, and 9/8 time.[22] This treatment of rhythm subsequently became so habitual for Stravinsky that, when he composed his Symphony in C in 1938–40, he found it worth observing that the first movement had no changes of meter at all (though the metrical irregularities in the third movement of the same work were amongst the most extreme in his entire output).[23]

So many other composers followed Stravinsky's example in the use of irregular meters that the occasional occurrence of septuple-time bars becomes unremarkable from the 1920s onward.[24] This is as true for composers regarded as conservative as for those labeled "progressive" or "avant garde". In the former category, this rhythmic usage was characteristic of compositions from the 1920s and 1930s by Gustav Holst. Septuple bars are found, for example, in passages in his opera The Perfect Fool (1918–22)—notably the two "earth" themes in the ballet of the elements, and the arrival of the Princess, which is "a genuine example of the septuple measure as distinct from those arising merely from prosody"[25]—and in A Choral Fantasia, op. 51 (bars 70–98, 179–85, and 201–209 are in 7/4).[26] An example from the next decade is Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 2, op. 35 (1945), where bars 2 and 13 after rehearsal K in the first movement, "Allegro calmo senza rigore", are in 7/4,[27] and from the 1950s, the second subject of the third movement, Allegro, of Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 102 (1957), which is in a fast 7/8.[28] Examples from more "progressive" composers include the first and third movements of the First Cantata, op. 29 (1938–39), by Anton Webern,[29] and the fourth movement (Intermezzo interrotto) of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (1943).[30]

Septuple meter is sometimes employed to characterize particular sections of compositions, such as single variations of pieces in variation form. One example is the third movement (Variations on a Ground), of Holst's Double Concerto for two violins and orchestra, op. 49, where the 13th and 17th variations are in 7/4 time.[31] An example from after the Second World War is found in Part I of Leonard Bernstein's The Age of Anxiety: Symphony No. 2, a theme-and-variations movement in which "Variation X: Più mosso" is notated in regularly alternating cut time and 3/4 bars, each pair amounting to one 7/4 bar.[32]

Compositions entirely or predominantly in septuple meter are less common. The last movement, "Precipitato", of the Piano Sonata No. 7 by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, which is in 7/8,[33] and Sensemayá, for orchestra, by the Mexican Silvestre Revueltas (predominantly in 7/8, with occasional interruptions in 7/16 time and a brief 7-bar interlude at rehearsal 23 of 9/8 (3/4+3/8))[34] are particularly well-known instances. Béla Bartók sometimes adopted septuple dance rhythms from the folk music of Eastern Europe, as in "Bulgarian Rhythm (1)" and the second of the "Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm", nos. 113 and 149 from Mikrokosmos, both of which are in 7/4.[35] Other examples from the middle of the century include the 7/4 third movement, "Très Animé", of the Fantasia, for saxophone, 3 horns, and string orchestra (1948), by Heitor Villa-Lobos,[36] "In the First Pentatonic Minor Mode (En el 1er modo pentáfono menor)", no. 5 from 12 American Preludes for piano by Alberto Ginastera, in 7/8,[37] and "Old Joe Has Gone Fishing" by Benjamin Britten (from the 1945 opera Peter Grimes), which is written in 7/4,[38] with the beats grouped as both 3+2+2 and 2+2+2+1 in a round, so that they interact to portray the rhythm of the ocean waves.[citation needed]

List of compositions in septuple meter[edit]

Partially in septuple meter[edit]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Read 1964, 161 and 164–65.
  3. ^ Moore 1969, 309–10.
  4. ^ Anon. 1896, 520.
  5. ^ a b c Powers and Widdess 2001.
  6. ^ Montfort n.d.
  7. ^ Reinhard and Stokes 2001a.
  8. ^ Reinhard and Stokes 2001b.
  9. ^ Bergeron 2010.
  10. ^ Buchanan 2001.
  11. ^ Chianis and Brandl 2001.
  12. ^ Murphy 2012.
  13. ^ Reicha 1973, 2:56–58.
  14. ^ Eddie 2007, 12 & 104; MacDonald 2001.
  15. ^ Lester 1986, 105–106.
  16. ^ Mussorgsky 1914, 18, 24–25.
  17. ^ Rushton 1983, 128.
  18. ^ Wiehmayer 1917, 81–82.
  19. ^ Brahms 1972, 134–37 of the score (= piano part).
  20. ^ Stravinsky 1964, 169–72.
  21. ^ White 1979, 212–13.
  22. ^ Stravinsky 1970, 102–114.
  23. ^ White 1979, 404–405.
  24. ^ Hiley 2001.
  25. ^ Evans 1923, 391–92.
  26. ^ Holst 1977, 7–11, 25–26, 31.
  27. ^ Britten 1946, 14–15.
  28. ^ Shostakovich 1983, 103–120.
  29. ^ Webern 1957, 10, 34–35, 38.
  30. ^ Bartók 1946, 70–71.
  31. ^ Holst 1973, 18, 21–22.
  32. ^ Bernstein 1993, 40–43.
  33. ^ Prokofiev 1955, 2:199–207.
  34. ^ Revueltas 1949.
  35. ^ Bartók 1940, 4:32–33, 6:39–41.
  36. ^ Villa-Lobos 1963, 25–36.
  37. ^ Ginastera 1946, 1:9.
  38. ^ Britten 1945; Sample page.
  39. ^ Lloyd Webber and Rice 1979, 40–45.
  40. ^ Sakimoto and Niwa 1994, 124–25.
  41. ^ Fenlon 2002, 34.
  42. ^ Perkins 2000, 2:41–58 (score).
  43. ^ Anon. 2013.
  44. ^ Vai 1995, 31.
  45. ^ Seal and Isidore 1994.
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