What is the “Inner Beat”?

Mozart, about 1780. Detail of Mozart family po...
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by Anthony Godlefski

13 October 2010

Mozart once said that “the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.”

I once thought that he was referring to rests as “the space between notes.”

I now believe that he was referring to what I like to call “the inner beat” — the duration of the note itself, thus the space between the inception of one note and the next.

In brief, the inner beat refers to the idea that, in measured music (as opposed to chant and related styles), every beat is actually composed of an infinite number of  “inner beats”, subdivisions of the overall beat, micro-pulsations within the larger beat, which gives true rhythmic vitality to the music.

Salve Regina in cantus planus & gregorian notation
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On our first piano lesson, we are taught that “the quarter note gets one beat.”  Clump.  Thump. One.  But how long exactly is that one beat?  In practical terms, the inner beat concept says that it is four 16th-notes long, or two eighth-notes at the very least.a quarter-note is not just, “ONE”.  It is, “One-and” or “One-ee-and-uh”.

This is an extraordinarily important concept.  The awareness of it makes the difference between an ordinary performance and an attractive performance, rhythmically speaking.  It applies to singing as well as percussion as well as string playing as well as the piano and organ.  The awareness of the inner beat makes the difference between a rushed performance and a stately performance, and consequently, between an anxious musical experience and a relaxed and engaging one.

For years, my choral group had been making recordings of our performances  I would sit in the studio of the recording engineer after our recording session or performance, and puzzle frequently-occurring musical problem.  In lively pieces especially, there was something wrong with many of our musical performances, (that is, ultimately, with my conducting).  It wasn’t so much the sound of the voices, or the dynamics, or intonation;it was something else that I could not put my finger on.  All I knew was that as I listened to the performance,I felt increasingly anxious.  There was something about the music that was making me nervous.

I recall that as a very young conductor, I was very concerned with making the music “exciting” — that generally translated as “too fast”.  I also probably experienced a big adrenaline rush when performance time came as well, and that pumped tempos up even further.

Sure, music needs to be exciting.  It needs not to “drag”.  What I did not realize at the time was that the solution to both music that was anxiously fast and draggingly slow was the application of the inner beat.  It would cure them both.

I remember how frustrated and dissatisfied I was.  The answer was to come from a member of our group.  We were rehearsing music for Christmas.  The particular piece was “Carol of the Bells“. It was rushing, rushing, rushing.  “Hark how the bells, sweet silverbellsallseemtosaythrowcaresaway…”.  I would fuss and complained to the singers who were rushing, but I could not fix it.  Then a soprano in our group, Barbara ewick, said, “why not sing, Har-rk how the be-lls, swe-et sil-ver be-lls, al-l seem to sa-y, thro-ow cares a-wa-y.” Cleared it right up.

Later, I had the tremendously good fortune of studying with the great Robert Shaw.  He was a strong proponent of the idea that the biggest problem most choirs have is rhythm (how true in my case).  Those of us who studied with him are well aware of his unrelenting use of the counting system, that is, before ever dealing with the text of a choral piece, we would sing all the nodes with, “One-ee-and-uh, Two-ee-and-uh…” etc.  the music had to be precisely right rhythmically and pitch wise before we ever sang a word.

And to think how many choirs just “plow through” pieces, words and notes the first time through.

I now use a modification of the Shaw system, a pulsating neutral syllable like “Dee” for clear intonation plus the awareness of the inner beat.  (As helpful as Shaw’s method is, most choirs find it cumbersome and often confusing.  This distracts their concentration from the key issue, which is listening to the effect of the inner rhythmic pulsations).

Listening to a lively piece by a great symphony orchestra is a good way to appreciate the awareness of the inner beat.  Great conductors and great orchestras are intensely aware of this, and it is transparently clear in their playing.

The awareness of the inner beat has transformed every aspect of my musical life, from organ playing to piano playing and certainly choral conducting.

(It should be noted that there are certain styles of music which are not so dependent on the inner beat awareness.  Gregorian chant especially, and soulful spirituals deal with the stretching and compressing of the length of notes in a very intuitive way. )

The inner beat concept brings both briskness and calmness to fast passages,  and irresistible attractiveness to slow passages.  May the concept be a blessing to your musical life.

© A. J. Godlefski 2010 October 13.

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2 Responses to What is the “Inner Beat”?

  1. anna knight says:

    I seem you have lost touch with you, Tony – and was fascinated by this site – and as an artist there is a connection – (and isn’t there always!) with ‘in drawing the space between is as important as the ‘image’ itself’…. discuss?!
    and also, is there a connection between the resonance in music and in art. When working as an art therapist with someone with epilepsy, I find that music and art can connect with the brain waves and the steady beat or pattern can bring about some normality either after a fit or prior to one.
    I lost your email and wonder if this will reach you on this snowy Christmas week! note new e mail address! I hope all is well. Anna

  2. Vincenzo says:

    Dear Anna,
    I am Vin, a.k.a. Vincenzo the webmaster. I see you sent your comment on the 21st of December, and here it is the 27th of January and you have received no reply. It’s not Tony’s fault — he would have replied to you on the 22nd of December! I’m the guy in charge of the website, and I didn’t even look at the comments until now.

    I will forward your comment on to Tony today, and I beg your forgiveness for not doing this promptly.

    Vin Reilly — “Vincenzo, the Webmaster”

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