Enthusiasms: Three Beats Per Measure

Music in three is one of the few “odd” time signatures profusely available in Western music, a tradition with a moderate to extreme aversion to the elliptical feel of uneven time. Somehow, the waltz sneaked through.

One of the earliest to catch in my ears was French composer Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse,” an attempt to capture the mad spin of a Viennese waltz (a style that rolls along at speeds up to twice those of the slow waltzes more popularly known today). I picked the recording up on an LP in high school, because the essay on the sleeve called the piece “fantastic and fatal.” I later learned that such a descriptor nearly became more than figurative for poor Maurice: After the famed critic Diaghilev dismissed the work, Ravel refused to shake his hand, and Diaghilev challenged him to a duel. (Fortunately, the two men never met again). Here is the first half of the piece, for two pianos, played by Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire. I think the first fatality occurs at 3:58.

Another interesting waltz, from the American folk tradition, is the tune “Goodnight Irene,” made famous by 12-string virtuoso Lead Belly. Below is a clip of his performance (stills with music). After that is a video of Mississippi John Hurt, taken from his visit to Pete Seeger’s old TV show Rainbow Quest. I wish there were TV shows like this now. Maybe there are, and I just don’t know about them. Hurt tells the story of how he became interested in guitar, and then (at about 4:30) plays “Goodnight Irene” — but he plays it in four beats per measure, instead of three.

I don’t usually associate three beat measures with jazz, but there’s an excellent example in the form of percussionist Max Roach’s 1957 album Jazz in 3/4 Time. Roach has dipped into the waltz pulse on and off for years, sometimes with such complexity that I have trouble following along, as here:

Another form that often finds itself in three is flamenco (a tradition I’ll return to when I write about music in six beats per measure). This historical recording from the Free Music Archive of Pilar Calvo and Luis Maravilla is a good challenge to count through — full of trickiness:

Steven Arntson is a writer and composer who performs as a concertina soloist and with the quartet The Toy Boats. Upcoming appearances are posted on his facebook page, and recordings, scores, and articles reside at his website.

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  1. Luke C
    Posted February 17, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Let’s not forget other western music! What about the classic Irish jig in 6/8? A completely different feel than the waltz, but with a strong triple feel. Great post and great videos! Thanks.

  2. Posted February 18, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink


    Thank you for the comment! I’m saving the jig for a post on 6/8 time, and the slip jig for a post on 9/8–stay tuned!


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