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Do your performances of Spanish and Latin music fall flat? Are they missing that special swing? Most likely, your hemiola is out of whack. No, it isn't a disease. I will explain what it is and how to fix it.
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Classical Guitar Technique
HEMIOLA: SWITCHING FROM 6/8 TO 3/4 METER
By Douglas Niedt
Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved.
This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.
I know. You are looking at the title of this technique tip and are thinking, "Why is this wonky guy giving me a dissertation on counting rhythm? I thought I was going to learn technique so I can play without making mistakes." Well, you are making a big mistake if you pass over this tip!
First, let's get the standard jokes out of the way. Yes, hemiola (pronounced "hem-ee-oh-luh") sounds like a disease. Or, it makes some people think of the medical condition called hemophilia where the blood does not clot properly.
- Guitarist #1: "My guitar teacher says I have a bad hemiola!"
- Guitarist #2: "Wow —that sounds serious!!!"
- What do you call a musician or composer who really digs hemiola effects?
- A hemiola-philiac.
What is a Hemiola?
Hemiola is a rhythmic effect produced by changing the grouping of beats. The most common is to change from groups of two to groups of three (or vice-versa). For guitar music, this corresponds most frequently to changing from 6/8 meter to 3/4 meter.
It takes advantage of the fact that 6=3+3 and also that 6=2+2+2.
This is How It Works
In music, there are 6 eighth notes (quavers) in each measure in 6/8 meter (Example #1):
Note to my American readers: "quaver" is the British term for our eighth note and "crochet" the term for our quarter note.
But there are also 6 eighth notes (quavers) in each measure in 3/4 meter (Example #2):
The difference is how they are grouped, accented, and counted. Notice that the notes are beamed into groups of 3 in 6/8. But they are beamed into groups of 2 in 3/4 (Example #3):
The 6/8 meter may be counted in different ways. Although the traditional way is most correct, when it comes to counting hemiola, do whatever is easiest for you (Example #4):
The 3/4 meter can also be counted in different ways (Example #5):
When faced with a hemiola rhythm, (most commonly switching back and forth from 6/8 to 3/4), it can be counted in any of the following ways. Do whichever is least confusing to you (Example #6):
Watch me demonstrate the basics of hemiola (Video #1).
One of the most famous examples of the hemiola comes from Leonard Bernstein's song America from his Broadway musical, West Side Story. The primary rhythmic figure is:
Watch this delightful clip from the movie version (Video #2).
Watch me play it on the guitar and explain the rhythm (Video #3).
Horizontal and Vertical Hemiolas
There are two types of rhythmic hemiolas: horizontal hemiola and vertical hemiola.
In the horizontal hemiola the meter changes in successive measures as in the examples above. The meter can change every measure. Or it might stay in one meter for several measures and then change for one or more measures. Or, it might only change once in the entire song.
In the vertical hemiola two meters are present simultaneously. The upper voice could be in 6/8 and the lower voice in 3/4 or vice-versa. The vertical hemiola is not nearly as common as the horizontal hemiola.
This technique tip will focus only on the horizontal hemiola
Hemiolas are Everywhere
The hemiola effect is present in much of Hispanic music. That includes music from Spain, Latin America, the Caribbean, and music from any other country or composer influenced by Hispanic music. It is also present in the music of Africa and the Middle East. It is found in many types of music: classical, pop, folk, and flamenco. If you play music by Albéniz, Granados, Brouwer, Villa-Lobos, Torroba, Turina, Morel, Lauro, Sanz, or many others, you will encounter passages of hemiola.
But it isn't limited to "Spanishy" music. It is also found in Renaissance music, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Chabrier and other "serious" music.
Canarios by Gaspar Sanz: The "Mother" of Hemiola
Canarios by Gaspar Sanz is probably the most often-played example of hemiola in the guitar repertoire. It also gives countless guitarists nightmares when they try to learn it. Playing the notes is not the problem. With a fair amount of practice, most intermediate guitarists can play the notes accurately. The biggest problem is counting the rhythm correctly.
Canarios is a great piece on which to learn the hemiola effect because it is filled with so many changes of meter. For example, the meter changes every measure from measure #8 through measure #19 (Example #8):
Watch me play it (Video #4).
Because it is a little easier to play, I am going to use the section from measures #23 through #28 to help you understand the rhythm and show you a few options on how to count the hemiola effect (Example #9):
Rule of Life: Whenever you must learn a complex or difficult rhythm, always omit ornaments and slurs. They usually confuse and obfuscate the learning process.
Therefore, here is our updated working example of measures #23-28 (Example #10):
Next, we write in the counting and accents (Example #11):
YOU MUST COUNT!
Count OUT LOUD
The most important requirement to playing a hemiola rhythm accurately is to count OUT LOUD. It doesn't matter whether you count the traditional way or one of the other options. But you must count out loud. If you count to yourself, it is almost certain you will not count accurately. When you count out loud you will immediately know if you leave out a number, say the wrong number, or slur your speech. When any of those happens, it is a dead giveaway that you are playing that spot incorrectly and that it needs to be carefully fixed.
The Speed of the 8th Notes (Quavers) Stays the Same
- Set your metronome at 144 bpm (beats per minute). Each tick is an eighth note (quaver). Without the guitar, count the 6/8 to 3/4 rhythm out loud over and over: 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 & 2 & 3 &. You should speak a syllable on each metronome tick.
- Keep the metronome at 144. Count out loud: 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 & 2 & 3 & and then begin playing example #11 above and keep counting as you play. You may need to work out a measure at a time. Or you may need to slow down the metronome. Work up to 200 bpm.
- It is difficult to keep track of metronome ticks past 200 bpm. Continue to speed up without the metronome but keep counting out loud.
Watch me demonstrate in Video 5.
Using a Metronome
Some pieces (such as Canarios) are too fast to count every syllable out loud or to have a metronome tick each eighth note (quaver) at the actual performance tempo. The remedy for this is to change the metronome setting (usually by half or a third) and changing the note value we assign to each metronome tick.
For example, in a simple 4/4 meter, a passage can be played at MM=200 for an eighth note (quaver). But that is a lot of metronome ticks to listen to. It is easier if we cut the metronome setting in half so we play at MM=100 and reassign each tick to a quarter note (crochet). The result is that we are still playing the eighth notes (quavers) at the same speed but don't have to listen to so many ticks. It is easier to hear what we are doing (Example #12):
Watch me demonstrate in Video 6.
We Have a Problem
John Williams plays Canarios at about 360 bpm for the eighth note (quaver). Even if we had a metronome that could tick that fast, it would be difficult to follow. Instead of ticking on every eighth note (quaver), we can change the metronome setting and assign each tick to a larger note value.
In 6/8, it is very convenient to have the metronome tick dotted quarter notes (dotted crotchets) (Example #13):
So, for the first seven measures of Canarios, it works very well and is very natural to have the metronome tick dotted quarter notes (dotted crochets), playing in groups of three notes (Example #14):
Watch me demonstrate in Video 7.
On the other hand, in 3/4 meter it is very convenient to have the metronome tick quarter notes (crotchets) (Example #15):
And this works great for all the 3/4 measures in Canarios. But now we have A BIG PROBLEM! Because the hemiola changes the meter back and forth between 6/8 and 3/4, how are we supposed to set our metronome? Do we set it to tick dotted quarters (dotted crochets) or quarter notes (crotchets)?
The answer is to learn to play the piece or passage both ways. It is essential to begin at a relatively slow speed and count out loud. It will feel very awkward at first because when the metronome is set to tick on dotted quarters (dotted crochets) it will be ticking the 3/4 measures as if they were in 6/8 and vice-versa. Let's have a look.
Setting the metronome to tick on the dotted quarter notes (dotted crochets) and playing our passage from measure 23-28 will look like this. In essence, you are playing the entire passage in 6/8, playing the notes in groups of three regardless of whether the meter says 6/8 or 3/4 (Example #16):
Watch me demonstrate in Video 8.
Alternatively, setting the metronome to tick on the quarter notes (crochets) and playing our passage from measure 23-28 will look like this. Now you are playing the entire passage in 3/4, playing the notes in groups of two regardless of whether the meter says 6/8 or 3/4 (Example #17):
Watch and listen to me make sense of it all in Video #9.
The point is, learn to play a hemiola passage with a metronome in both 6/8 AND 3/4 meter. It will help you understand the hemiola, feel it, and play it precisely.
When you turn the metronome off, you may be able to automatically maintain the correct rhythms without counting. However, some guitarists must always maintain an internal count in their head to keep the rhythm changes accurate.
The most common hemiola in guitar music is the change from 6/8 to 3/4 meter. A less common meter change is from 6/4 to 3/2 meter. It is found in Prelude No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos does not actually notate the change of meters but it is obvious (I will explain this more in the next section). Example #18:
Sometimes Hemiolas are Written in Secret Code
A key thing to understand is that in a piece of music, the meter and other musical notational elements (beaming and accents) are SUPPOSED to tell you how to group, accent, and count the beats when you encounter a hemiola passage. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. In fact, I would say that in much of the repertoire I encounter, the music is notated incorrectly or inadequately. When music is properly notated, you should easily be able to identify hemiolas simply by the notational elements on the page. My notation of the Sanz Canarios is a good example. I specify every meter change and the notes are correctly beamed according to the meter.
But the problem goes beyond inadequate or incorrect notation. For the Hispanic and African cultures, hemiola is such an integral part of the music that the composers assume any idiot can feel or hear when the meter changes and therefore it is not necessary to notate it. They will either notate the entire piece in 6/8 or in 3/4 and let the performer change the meter as needed. Or, some will acknowledge that the meter changes in the piece by putting a double or composite meter at the beginning of the piece but not indicate the actual changes of meter within the piece.
Leonard Bernstein uses this method to notate the aforementioned America in the orchestral score to West Side Story. He notates both a 6/8 and 3/4 meter at the introduction to the song (Example #19):
But from then on, no meter changes are indicated (for clarity, I added them in red). Example #20:
Antonio Lauro uses the same notation at the beginning of his Vals Venezolano No. 3 (Example #21):
Within the piece he switches freely back and forth between 6/8 and 3/4 without indicating changes of meter (Example #22):
Finally, we have this famous example from the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo (Example #23):
Sometimes, when the composer has not clearly indicated the meter, it is up to the performer to decide which meter they need to play in depending on how they want the passage to sound.
- Hemiolas are everywhere in the guitar repertoire so it is important to understand how to play them correctly.
- Counting out loud is crucial to learning the rhythms.
- Playing with a metronome is very helpful especially if you learn to play the passage in both meters.
1. Download a PDF of the article with links to the videos.
This is a download from Dropbox. NOTE: You do NOT need a Dropbox account and don't have to sign up for Dropbox to access the file.
2. Download PDFs with the videos embedded in the PDF (no worries about links or videos disappearing or changing).
These are large files and may not work on all devices. These are downloads from Dropbox. NOTE: You do NOT need a Dropbox account and don't have to sign up for Dropbox to access the files.
Download Hemiola with embedded videos Pages 1 thru 6 (470 MB)
Download Hemiola with embedded videos Pages 7 thru 13 (475 MB)
Download Hemiola with embedded videos Pages 14 to end (572 MB)
3. Download individual videos.
Click on the video you wish to download. After the Vimeo video review page opens, click on the down arrow in the upper right corner. You will be given a choice of five different resolutions/qualities/file sizes to download.
Download Video #1. Hemiola Basics 03:26
Download Video #2. America from West Side Story Movie Clip 00:42
Download Video #3. America from West Side Story on Guitar 01:26
Download Video #4. Canarios measures 8-19 00:29
Download Video #5. Canarios Practice Passage m23-28 05:07
Download Video #6. Metronome Ticks and Note Values 01:21
Download Video #7. Canarios measures 1-8 metronome dotted quarters 02:09
Download Video #8. Canarios measures 23-28 metronome ticking dotted quarter notes 01:58
Download Video #9. Canarios m23-28 metronome ticking quarter notes 01:09