Why You Should Break the Middle of the Bar

[Reads Title] [Italianate Mendy] [Wasn’t he dashing?!] So, let’s talk about this. There’s this rule in music notation that you
should always break rhythms to show the “Middle of the Bar”. Usually, when sensible people debate this
obviously true and right axiom, they are talking about rhythmic notation in a bar of 4/4 time
and it usually goes something like this: [Posh British:] It is common and proper to show
the third beat of the bar, id est, rhythms should be notated in such a way as to make
it immediately obvious where the third beat starts, and to not have any rhythmic figuration
cross this threshold to avoid metrical obfuscation. [Normal Voice:] except when it’s a half note…
but let’s not get off-track. People often assume this convention is some
arbitrary rule, one which must be followed with absolute diligence. To break it means the engraver ought to be
tarred and feathered, drawn and quartered, and then their body burned up with the heat
of a thousand suns! However, showing the Middle of the Bar of
4/4 isn’t actually arbitrary, just the most obvious effect of a much more interesting
and more nuanced set of rules built right into how music notation works. It is a convention for rhythmic notation that
allows for parsing of rhythm to be much easier on the player. The rule is: That sounds super confusing. Let’s try and make sense of it. First I want to establish what it means by
“two rhythmic levels.” In music notation, different types of notes
will take up different lengths of time. These are usually grouped together into beats
to build a rhythm, but we’re not going to get into that right now. All the different types of notes are related
to each other in an exponential binary system of rhythmic durations. Just… Here, look. This diagram is at the beginning of every
method or theory book ever made. The note lengths arranged from longest to
shortest. At the top we have a whole note. Below that, we have half notes, which are,
well, half as long. Then below that we have quarter notes, which
are half as long as the half notes, or a quarter of a whole note. And so on. Each additional beam on a black notehead will
half the value again. Quarters twice as large as 8ths, which are
twice as large as 16ths, which are twice as large as 32nds, which are twice as large as
64ths…. [spiraling off into irrelevance.] [Michael Palin:] Anyway. When the rule mentions rhythmic levels, it
just means a specific type of note, and then moving two levels larger. So when we’re concerned with 16th notes,
we go two levels up to quarter notes. Now, with that prolegomenon out of the way,
let’s look at this rule in practice. Say we have a whole bar of 4/4 filled with
8th notes. This would be 8 notes altogether. The note length “two rhythmic levels larger”
than an 8th note is a half note, which is equivalent to four 8th notes. In 4/4, there can only be two half notes since
an entire bar has four beats in it, with each half taking two beats. Using this as a starting point for grouping
the 8th notes, we can substitute those halves with the groups of four 8ths each. This causes the convenient and happy consequence
of an invisible division right in the middle of the bar. Note that it isn’t possible to combine just
any four 8th notes here. The groups have to respect the divisions of
the time signature by the larger note value. So these four 8ths that span beats 2 and 3
can’t be beamed together. The half note divisions of the bar don’t fit
here as they have to sit on beats 1 and 3. Interestingly, this lines up with the typical
“strong” beats of a measure of 4/4. While I think that helps make this rule even
more useful, I don’t think that’s the reason why it exists or should be followed. In all sorts of music, the sounding meter’s
beat stress can shift around contrary to the default stress of the written meter, which
remains constant. The whole point of written meter and time
signatures is to give the musician a consistent framework of breaking up time into beats that
are easily grouped together. Good notation will follow that intuitive grouping. Of course, sometimes it makes sense for the
written meter to completely deviate from the time signature and show more clearly when
the sounding meter totally breaks with the written meter… But we’re getting off track here… Going one level smaller than 8th notes,
the same logic applies. Say there are eight 16th notes, then they
should be grouped as four and four, since two levels up from a 16th note is a quarter
note, the same length of four 16ths. In 4/4 there are four quarters available,
so those two groups of four 16ths would have to fall exactly within two entire beats. If they don’t, the groups should be broken
up to respect the longer note value. Notice here that the eight 16ths are grouped
in groups of four as expected, but since they don’t fit into the beats of the larger note
value, we have to come up with a different solution, namely to group together the middle
four since they line up exactly with one of the quarter note beats. Note too, that if a rhythm contains 16ths
at all, the rhythmic figure surrounding those 16ths cannot be combined beyond the quarter
note pulse. This is the “smallest note” provision of the
rule we established at the beginning. Take this rhythm of two 16ths, then an 8th,
then another 8th, then two more 16ths. We can’t just beam these all together even
though they add up to a half note, which would be two levels above the 8ths. The groupings must be only quarters and would
have to be written as two 16ths and an 8th, then an 8th and the other two 16ths. This neatly shows the beats of the meter and allows
us to parse the 16th notes practically instantly. The whole point of this rule is to show the
inherent binary nature of the different levels of note values, and marry it to the concept
of the meter (in this case a duple meter). It makes smaller notes much easier to parse when
there’s a flood of them happening all at once. That two-level higher thing also does a really
good job of limiting the size of groups that the musician has to contend with because any group
for a given rhythm level is capped at four notes. For example, it’s much easier to parse
eight 16th notes in two groups of four rather than a single group of eight. It also limits the number of valid combinations
of positions for symbols. For instance, a 16th note cannot be followed
directly by a half note, since that would break the 16th note level parsing rules. The logical result of these rules is that a half
note in 4/4 only has three possible locations, on beats 1 2 or 3,
and literally nowhere else. So, if you see a half note, you can use it as an “anchor”,
if you will, for parsing the rest of the bar. Obviously there are exceptions to these rules,
and we haven’t even talked about rhythm dots and syncopations to allow for simplified notation,
but let’s leave that for another time. As a side note, all this logic applies in
triple meters too, you just add another beat to the equation so the groups are a maximum
of six notes long. It does make things a little bit more complicated,
but it doesn’t cause the system to fall apart. Triple meters can have some weird quirks that
aren’t the most obvious. Let me know down in the comments if you want
to see a video breaking down triple meter as well. Let’s go through some examples of this rule
in practice: Here we have five 8th notes followed by a
quarter. If we beam all five 8ths together, the musician
could misread them at a glance, perhaps thinking it is only a group of four, and then assume
the following quarter falls on beat 3. This would be incorrect since it actually
is a syncopated quarter on the and of three. Given the parsing rule, we can group those
8ths up to the size of a half note, or four 8ths, and the extra one is given a flag of it’s own. Here’s an example of syncopated quarter notes
surrounded by 16ths. We won’t get too deep into the syncopated part, because we’ll save that for another video… but… in between the two quarters are four 16ths. Now, according to the rule, we can group two
levels higher, or a quarter note. Great, so those four 16ths can be beamed together
right?! Not so fast. The groups must respect the divisions of the
bar of the larger value. For our case here that’s quarter notes. Since this is in 4/4, it can be divided into
four quarter notes, each on the beat, pretty straightforward. Then each group must fall within those same groups. Therefore those 16ths must be broken to allow
the first two to fall within the beat 2 group, and the last two to fall within the beat 3 group. Perfect! Now we can write the syncopated quarters as quarters
or tied 8ths depending on how strict you get with the syncopation rules. Feel free to fight about that in the comments. [Pedant:] But that’s obvious, duh! You just have to break the middle of the bar! Isn’t that just a super complicated way of
saying the same thing? [Normal:] Yes… but also no, because this
logic applies in all sorts of interesting ways that go way beyond the middle of the
bar tomfoolery. The point here is to understand the logic
and meaning behind the system. Here, look at this example. Remember, anchoring? This is a 16th note followed by a quarter note. This is exceptionally difficult to read since
the quarter notes are never placed on the quarter beat… I mean, on the e of the beat… I mean … on the second or fourth quartile
of the beat. [ding] Since the first beat of the measure contains
16th notes it must be broken up into a group by the parsing rules for 16th notes. So, that group should be no longer than a
quarter note which means that following quarter note gets broken down into smaller notes tied together. Notice too how the 16th note on the beginning
of beat three also gets grouped with the existing 16th notes, making the position of those 16ths,
starting on the e of beat 3, much clearer. This is the same reason why notating consecutive
dotted 8ths in 4/4 is not allowed either. All dotted notes are parsed based on their
smallest division, or the amount the dot adds, so a 16th note for a dotted 8th. This example violates the 16th note level
grouping of quarter notes. Colloquially, of course, this is to “show
all the beats” but the reasoning behind it is far deeper and really has nothing to do
with the specific time signature, only the binary rhythm system of simple meters. [Pedant:] But wait, that music looks way more
complicated, surely the consecutive dotted 8ths would be better! [Normal:] No. It may look more complicated on the surface,
but it actually is much easier to read since it follows the expectations of the rhythm
system that musicians are fluent in. Its sort of like spelling. You wouldn’t spell words in this way in normal writing: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog That’s just not right. Here’s a really absurd one, but shows how the
logic cascades up the chain of rhythm sizes. The rhythms are beamed incorrectly all over
the place, so let’s correct that. See how the 16th notes in beat 1 are beamed
together? If there were no 32nds in that beat, that
would be fine, but since there are, it is proper to break the secondary beam in order
to show the 8th note pulse there rather than the quarter note pulse, as 8th notes are two
levels above 32nds. Sibelius actually does this incorrectly by
default and you have to force it to display the correct rhythm. Notice too (and this is my favorite) that
the primary beam is for the 8ths level and it is still beamed together to show the quarter
note beat! By engraving the beams this way, musicians
can very quickly parse the rhythm and find out where all those itty-bitty notes lie in
the measure without thinking too hard. Let’s throw some 64ths in the mix, just for fun. That double dotted note is
*completely* in the wrong place. It has to be broken up into a few tied notes. Notice how in beat 2 with the 64th notes,
there’s actually *two* secondary beams. This way the 8th note divisions of the 32nds
are still respected while the 16th note divisions of the 64ths are also respected. If you follow the top level beam of this rhythm,
you can easily see where the quarter note pulse is at all times, and the 8th note pulse,
for that matter, by following the double beams. In fact, here’s the complete system all in one image
from whole to 128th notes, or five beams. You can see how a single beam indicates the
secondary grouping at the correct position for 8th notes at 32nd notes and smaller. 64th notes not only have secondary but tertiary
groupings with the two beams showing the 16th note groups, and 128th notes have quaternary
groupings to show the 32nd notes! Notice too that for quarters and halves, which
have no beams, they still have a visual definition that is functionally equivalent to beams:
that is, the color of the notehead. You could easily pretend there was an invisible
beam for those levels and it cascades up the list just like all the others. It’s an ingenious system that musicians
learn when reading music, and it never really is “explained”, probably because few teachers would be able to articulate it; even most music engravers wouldn’t be able to. It really is remarkable that this system is
so logical and neat. Gould knows, not everything in music notation is. All this is to say, using this system of rhythmic
parsing correctly and consistently is of the utmost importance in your engraving. It’s one of the most fundamental elements of
music notation that musicians will look at a lot. And, if they easily parse your rhythms,
they will learn to trust your notation and not second-guess themselves. Thanks for watching this music engraving tip. Did you know about the rationale behind rhythmic
parsing before? Let us know in the comments. If you liked what you saw or you feel like
you learned something, be sure to hit that like button. For more videos, be sure to subscribe and
smash that bell. I’ve made it a point to make more videos for this channel, but it takes a lot of time and effort on my part. If you would like to help support these videos
and the Music Engraving Tips group in general, head over to our Patreon page. Thank you! [Debussy Intensifies]

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  1. OMG! I am cracking up at the memes throughout this video.

    The content is outstanding, and I intend to dig through it and employ some of these explanations for my students. Thank you!

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