"Histories of Musical and Poetic Meter"

Conveners: Rick Cohn, Roger Grant, and Carmel Raz

March 14-15, 2019

The past several decades have witnessed an efflorescence of research on the temporal aspects of musical experience. Rhythm and meter, once regarded as merely secondary parameters in comparison to pitch and harmony, are now central to the analysis and theory of music.  Bringing empirical approaches together with historicist and analytical work, the second meeting of the "Histories of Modern Rhythmic Theory" working group will cultivate new critical and comparative perspectives on historical rhythmic and metric theory.     



David E. Cohen (Senior Research Scientist, “Histories of Music, Mind and Body,” MPIEA)

Rick Cohn (Battell Professor of Music Theory, Yale University)

Ben Glaser (Assistant Professor of English, Yale University)

Roger Mathew Grant (Associate Professor, Wesleyan University)

Nori Jacoby (Research Group Leader, “Computational Auditory Perception,” MPIEA)

Ewan Jones (Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Literature, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge)

Martin Küster (Independent scholar, Berlin)

Justin London (Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music, Cognitive Science, and the Humanities, Carleton College)

Danuta Mirka (Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt Chair in Music Theory and Composition, Northwestern University)

Lara Pearson (Researcher, MPIEA)

Marc Perlman (Associate Professor, Brown University)

Rainer Polak (Researcher, MPIEA)

Carmel Raz (Research Group Leader, “Histories of Music, Mind and Body,” MPIEA)

Bill Rothstein (Professor, The City University of New York Graduate Center)

Winfried Menninghaus (Director, Literature Department, MPIEA)




Thursday, March 14

13:30-14:30: Talk 1 (Menninghaus): “Rhythm and Melody in Poems”

14:30-16:30: Seminar 1 (Cohen): “Aristotle, Aristoxenus, and St. Augustine on Time and the Science of Rhythmics”

16:30-17:00: Coffee

17:00-18:00: Talk 2 (Perlman): “How Deep is Hypermeter?”

18:00-19:00: Talk 3 (Polak): “Asymmetric Hierarchy in Non-isochronous Meter: What is it Good for? Some Observations from Mali”

19:15: Dinner

Friday, March 15

9:00-9:30: Coffee

9:30-10:30: Workshop Paper 1 (Mirka): Chapter 1, “Hypermeter”

10:30-11:30: Workshop Paper 2 (Raz): “Walter Young’s Essay on Rythmical Measures (1790)”

11:30-12:00 Coffee

12:00-13:00: Workshop Paper 3 (Cohn): “Damaged Cargo: Concerning the Unfortunate Voyage of Poetic Meter to the Land of the Modern Music-Theory Textbook”

13:00-13:45: Lunch

13:45-15:30: Seminar 2 (Glaser): “Scansion: Theory, Practice, Archive”

15:30-16:00: Coffee

16:00-17:00: Talk 4 (Küster): “How Many Barlines Are Too Many?”

17:00-18:00: Talk 5 (Jones): “The Rhythm Method: Stuttering, Syncopation, Race”



Talk Abstracts:


Menninghaus, “Rhythm and Melody in Poems”

Since antiquity, poems of the written tradition have been called “songs” and poets “singers.” Some 18th century authors proposed that poems feature not only an analogue of musical meter, but also another indispensable property of songs: namely, melody.
My presentation presents evidence supporting this assumption.


Polak, “Asymmetric Hierarchy in Non-isochronous Meter: What is it Good for? Some Observations from Mali”

Uneven beat subdivisions (e.g., notes inégales, swing eighths, or the sixteenth notes in Samba)  are often theorized as instances of expressive timing variation, that is, as performance deviations from some underlying, categorically isochronous temporal structure. By contrast, my ethnographic experience as an apprenticed dance musician in Mali suggests that periodic patterns of uneven beat subdivision can constitute rhythmic and metric structures in their own right. Several empirical studies of both performance timings and rhythm perception found support for that claim [1-5]. In some pieces of the Malian repertoires I study, two different levels of uneven beat subdivision (e.g., binary long-short and ternary short-medium-long) are coordinated in a single, beautifully nested metric hierarchy. The resulting structures are asymmetric and may look uncommon, which indeed they are from a comparative perspective. However, enculturated listeners in Mali easily perceive and entrain to them. The talk will describe such asymmetric hierarchies and ask whether their structural characteristics offer specific advantages. The answer concerns the coordination of metric layers, which is particularly fine-grained and thus allows smooth manipulations of density levels in the asymmetric hierarchies under study.

  1. Polak, R. (2010). Rhythmic feel as meter: Non-isochronous beat subdivision in jembe music from Mali. Music Theory Online, 16(4).
  2. Polak, R., & London, J. (2014). Timing and meter in Mande drumming from Mali. Music Theory Online, 20(1).
  3. Polak, R., Jacoby, N., & London, J. (2016). Both isochronous and non-isochronous metrical subdivision afford precise and stable ensemble entrainment: A corpus study of Malian jembe drumming. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 10, 285.
  4. Neuhoff, H., Polak, R., & Fischinger, T. (2017). Perception and evaluation of timing patterns in drum ensemble music from Mali. Music Perception, 34(4), 438–451.
  5. Polak, R., Jacoby, N., Fischinger, T., Goldberg, D., Holzapfel, A., & London, J. (2018). Rhythmic prototypes across cultures: A comparative study of tapping synchronization. Music Perception 36(1), 1–23.


Küster: “How Many Barlines Are Too Many?”

Eighteenth-cemtury music theorists, when claiming that written measures contain more than one functional measure – 'compound meter' – often felt a need to justify this practice. The reason they usually gave is that it relieved the composer of having to draw "too many barlines". This explanation may seem trivial, but when viewed in light of eternally variable metric notation, the inconsistent application of barlines up to the mid-18th century and the existence of compound meter long before its theoretical formulation, I think the notion of avoiding barlines does deserve some consideration.

I understand the phrase to mean a tendency to keep the ratio of notes and barlines within limits, i.e. to end up with neither too many nor too few notes in between lines, independent of any functional value of these signs. I think such a tendency can indeed be demonstrated. As a result, graphical measures can look rather similar despite a wide range of metrical realities, which complicates analysis but must have been of practical benefit not only to composers and copyists but also to performers.


Jones, “The Rhythm Method: Stuttering, Syncopation, Race”

I’m presently writing a book that argues that the concept of rhythm, such as we now understand it, comes into being over the course of the nineteenth century. Much of this conceptualisation, I contend, comes about through a sustained historical dialectic between poetry and a variety of discursive fields, ranging from idealist philosophy to the thermal sciences. This talk offers one such case study. It traces the means by which the concept of rhythm is formulated in the reformist prosody of Joshua Steele; and how that concept then galvanises the then-nascent field of speech therapy. I explore the consistent recruitment of poetry in the effort to cure speech dyspraxia, and the ways in which several such poems productively resist the clinical ends to which they are put. I conclude with a consideration of the relation between (phonemic) stuttering and (musical) syncopation, as it plays out both in the verse of Robert Browning and the musical idiom of ragtime.