May 23, 2020

"Complex" rhythms are simple when danced: Balkan pop-folk music with 5 beats per measure

To further underscore the inseparability of music and dance, let's look at meter, or how many beats there are per measure (i.e., before the pattern repeats).

This is the aspect of music that cerebral nerds fixate on and screw around with to produce "weird" time signatures -- prog rock, math rock, etc.

But it turns out that plain old folk music can produce unusual time signatures without a cerebral orientation -- indeed, from a purely corporeal approach, which simplifies the process. Alternating the number of steps within a pass in a dance -- e.g., a 2-step followed by a 3-step, and repeat -- actually provides motivation for an unusual time signature -- rather than pulling it out of your ass to showcase your brainpower.

The fundamental meters have either 2 or 3 beats per measure, with main stress on the first beat and weak beats trailing after: "ONE two, ONE two" or "ONE two three, ONE two three".

The standard is 4 beats per measure, but you actually hear it and move your body to it as though it were two pairs of two beats apiece, each pair having stress on the first beat and a weak beat after, but with the first pair's stress being even stronger than that of the second pair. This yields three degrees of stress -- strong on 1, medium on 3, weak on 2 and 4. "ONE two, THREE four, ONE two, THREE four".

If you don't subdivide the measure into those two pairs, and try to preserve only one degree of stress, that would yield 1 stressed beat and 3 weak beats. For example, "ONE two three four". It's not impossible, but those three consecutive weak beats trail off a little too long. The natural tendency is to break up three weak beats in a row, and give one of them stress -- albeit to a lesser degree than the main stress. Hence grouping them into two pairs, each with its own stress (strong, weak, medium, weak).

Before getting to the unusual meters, let's ground the discussion of 4 beats in a kinesthetic activity. Normally I'd say marching in place to the rhythm, but that won't work if we're using 2 or 3 weak beats in a row. For walking or marching, one foot marks the strong beat, the other marks the weak beat. Two or three weak beats in a row would require putting the same foot forward for 2 or 3 steps -- doesn't work. So instead, try hopping -- hop on one foot for a strong beat, hop on the other foot for a weak beat. There's nothing impossible about hopping on the weak-beat foot for 2 or 3 times in a row.

Now try hopping to a count of "ONE two three four" -- strong foot once, then weak foot three times in a row, and repeat it over again. There's too many weak hops in a row, and only one strong hop to relieve the monotony! It feels like you're going to keel over in the weak-foot direction, or buckle under the pressure, or otherwise shut down your activity level.

But alternate back and forth, so that the 3rd beat gets the strong foot, and it feels totally natural and sustaining of your activity level. If your strong foot hits equally hard on 1 and 3, that's really just a 2-beat meter. So try to give the 3rd beat only medium strength -- more than the weak foot does, but not as forceful as the main 1st beat. Now you've got a 4-beat measure that's subdivided into two pairs, with primary and secondary stress.

We've solved the mystery of why 4-beat measures in music almost always get subdivided into two pairs -- because 3 weak beats in a row, with only 1 strong beat to relieve them, is conceptually imaginable, but corporeally destructive. It shuts down your dancing activity. Solution: subdivide 4 beats into 2 pairs with strong and medium stress, and suddenly you can alternate your feet and thereby preserve your energy level and balance. Musical choices are constrained by the requirements of dancing.

So why allow 3-beat measures, with their 2 weak beats in a row? Don't think, just give it a try -- hop on the strong foot once, then hop on the weak foot twice, and repeat. It's not as awkward as three weak beats in a row. It does throw you slightly off-balance, but not so much that you can't recover. And it does drag your energy down slightly, but not as much as when there are three straight beats worth of low-energy motions.

If we want any departure at all from the simple "ONE two, ONE two" meter, and its "RIGHT left, RIGHT left" motions, let's only depart as minimally as possible, just to keep it grounded. And in fact, you're getting a lot more leeway than you'd think. With "ONE two three..." the number of strong beats is the same, but now you've got twice as many weak beats -- a 100% increase. That's plenty.

* * *

This brings us naturally to a meter with 5 beats per measure. We're fine with a 2-beat pair, we're fine with a 3-beat triplet, and we're fine with combining 2 pairs into a 4-beat measure. So why not try another minimal combination? -- two groupings as before, but instead of 2 + 2, it's 2 + 3, which gives us 5 beats total. There's still stress on the first beat of each grouping, and still primary stress on the first grouping, and secondary stress on the second grouping. Then it's, "ONE two THREE four five, ONE two THREE four five".

To dance to this rhythm, hop on your feet: strong weak, strong weak weak. Again, on the 3rd beat, your strong foot should only get medium-level force, not as much as on the 1st beat, but clearly more than on the weak beats. And if that's too difficult at first, just give your strong foot the same force on both 1 and 3. Having medium force on the secondary stress is more important when there's 4 beats per measure, where using the same force on 1 and 3 would make it sound like only 2 beats per measure.

When there's 5 beats, subdivided into 2 + 3, there's no way to confuse the first and second grouping because each has a different number of beats. So distinguishing the first from the second grouping does not depend so much on varying the force delivered on the stressed beat of each one, and differing primary from secondary stress is not necessary. (But it does help emphasize the different groupings.)

In the comments later, I'll add some thoughts on why 2 + 3 is more natural than 3 + 2, the other possible way to combine a pair and a triplet together to make 5 beats. It's not relevant now, though. But it does derive from the mechanics of dancing.

For a more interesting dance, rather than just hopping in place, try moving sideways in a line. Move in the direction of your strong foot, so that you land on a strong beat. For the weak beat, just hop in place on your weak foot. So it goes: "STEP hop, STEP hop hop" and repeat. Maybe it's more of a jump than a step to the side -- something more forceful than the hop.

And that's it -- "unusual" time signatures with 5 beats per measure are not so strange if the music is motivated by dancing, like Mother Nature intended. We could do 7 beats per measure, but it would break down according to the same principles -- e.g., combine a pair, a pair, and a triplet. The sideways dance would go, "STEP hop, STEP hop, STEP hop hop" and repeat.

These asymmetrical meters allow for some pleasant variety in the rhythm, while also keeping us from falling all over ourselves. It mixes things up while still keeping them in a simple, orderly structure.

* * *

Now for some actual music with 5 beats per measure, driven entirely by dances that involve a 2-step and then a 3-step movement. The ground zero for their popularity seems to be Thrace, which is today split between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, in Southeastern Europe. From my cursory survey, 5-beat meter seems to be a fairly reliable marker of Indo-European lineage, but that's a topic for another post.

National folk music saw a resurgence after the end of the Communist era in Eastern Europe, and in Bulgaria this was mixed with pop music to produce "pop-folk". It also went under the name "chalga," but that label has rapidly changed in meaning over the past 10-15 years to mean generic international genres that are mixed together (techno, rap, etc.), without a strong Bulgarian folk influence. The songs below are from before that transition, and the instrumental backing band hails from Thrace (Yambol).

The singer in the first one was a Turkish-speaking Gypsy of Bulgarian nationality -- talk about being at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. It may be hard to hear the 2 + 3 rhythm at first, but wait until the clarinet solo when there's just a spare bass rhythm otherwise. The primary stress is on 1, then a rest or silence on 2. There's a little offbeat before 3, the secondary stress on 3 itself, which builds through weak beats 4 and 5, then crashes down again on 1.

Try tapping your fingers in order to the rhythm. If you use only your four fingers, and not your thumb, you'll notice that the main stress falls on a different finger from one measure to the next. Namely, the next one in order from whatever it was previously. If it were a 4-beat measure, it should fall on the same finger each time. Since it's moving over one finger each measure, that means there's 1 more beat than 4 -- 5 beats per measure.

If you start with your pinky, that gets the heavy stress, the ring gets a rest, the middle gets the secondary stress, and the fore and thumb get two weak building-up beats, before cycling back to the heavy stress on the pinky again. Slow it down in YouTube if you need to. That also goes for getting used to dancing to it.

The second song is a little harder to hear, but it's the only other example I could quickly find while browsing a country's music that I'm pretty unfamiliar with. It's also a faster tempo than the first example, so try this one out after you've got the first one down.

The first music video brings back memories of the good ol' days here, where the band was ugly guys who could compose and play instruments well, a cute songbird on the microphone, and random babes moving their bodies to fully integrate dance with music and singing, as Mother Nature intended.

"Kaynana" by Reyhan and Orchestra Kristal (2002):

"Limon" by Toni Dacheva and Orchestra Kristal (1993):


  1. I associate prog/math rock more with changing the time signature within the song. It's not really music intended for dancing.

    The most well-known sort of dance with a time signature other than 4/4 is the waltz. Blue Rondo a la Turk is supposed to be a borrowing of a traditional Turkish rhythm which the local street musicians claimed was as familiar to them as blues would be to an American (although it shifts into conventional 4/4 time for a while before switching back). Take Five off the same album is in 5/4 the whole way through and is presumably inspired by classical rather than folk influences.

  2. "Take Five" has a 3+2 rhythm, pretty danceable for beatnik music. You could actually cut a little rug to it -- and most of the chicks there would definitely be paying attention to the only dude who knew how to dance in the room, especially to such a "complex" rhythm.

    It starts with the higher-pitched piano flourish, and ends on the lower-pitched flourish. There's a little offbeat between 2 and 3. (And the piano actually hits a bit before the 2 beat, for syncopation.) Main stress on 1, secondary stress on 4:

    ONE two and three, FOUR five

    The dance goes "strong weak weak, strong weak" and repeat.

    It's not really high-energy, but the tempo is pretty fast, so you don't have to make wide steps or jumps on the strong foot, and don't have to hop off the ground on the weak beat. You can just glide or shuffle your feet along the ground, bouncing down on each beat.

    If your strong foot is right, you shift right on 1, lightly bounce or press your left foot in place on 2 and 3, shift right again on 4, and light bounce in place with left foot on 5. To mark primary from secondary stress, make a wider shift on 1, and a smaller shift on 4.

    Your hips can naturally move along with your legs and feet. To get your arms into it, just extend them sideways, and on the stressed beats, bend your elbows and snap the upper arm in toward your sides, extending them back out during the weak beats.

    You'll have those bohemian babes snapping their fingers in no time, daddy-o.

    Waltz is in a simple rhythm, with just 3 beats per measure and no subdivisions necessary.

    The point about prog/math rock is that it's so niche precisely because it's entirely divorced from corporeal motivation -- whether normie dancing or hard-rock headbanging and moshing. It just doesn't resonate.

  3. 2+3 feels more natural than 3+2 because it breaks up the weight more evenly b/w the two groups.

    This is due to there being two degrees of stress, strong and medium, and the overwhelming tendency -- no matter what meter -- is to put the strongest stress on 1.

    In 3+2, it looks like:

    ONE two three, FOUR five

    The weak beat in the rhythm goes with a weak, winding-up kind of motion in the dance. It's a beat for anticipation rather than delivery of full force.

    After two weak beats in a row, we've built up more anticipation and have wound up our body more -- e.g., raising your winding-up leg higher after two weak beats than after just one. So it's natural to want the strong stress afterward, to release all that anticipation, and deliver the force from a more highly-wound-up body.

    But with 3+2, the two weak beats in a row are followed by the medium stress, and that leaves us unfulfilled. All that extra anticipation and winding up our body, only to get paid off with the smaller of the two stresses?

    Or you could reverse-engineer the dance move. The greatest delivery of force should hit on the strongest stress, and of course a greater delivery requires a greater time and effort to wind up that body part. So the strong stress must be preceded by two weak beats, to allow enough bodily preparation.

    If I were trying to really get into dancing to a 3+2, I'd probably shift the strong stress to 4, and make 1 the medium stress. It would sacrifice the intuitiveness of starting with the strongest stress, but it's worth it to not feel unsatisfied every measure after the relatively weak pay-off of a medium stress after two weak beats.

    Or if you wanted to sacrifice complexity, you could just use equal stress levels for both 1 and 4 -- both the musicians playing, and the people dancing. Again, differing stress is unnecessary to distinguish the two groupings, since they're already clearly distinguished by how many weak beats they have, unlike say 4/4.

    But why do that, when you've got 2+3 as an alternative?

    ONE two, THREE four five

    Now we have the two consecutive weak beats followed by the strong stress -- there's a greater pay-off to the longer build-up, and the heaviest delivery in the dance has more time to prepare for. Plus, this longer build-up and greater release also wraps around from one measure to the next -- like a cliffhanger ending, and cathartic beginning of the next episode of a TV show.

    That's how you build up and release tension! And without having to sacrifice stress complexity (still two degrees), or sacrifice strong stress at the start (1 is strong).

  4. Here's an example of a percussionist adding complexity to a rhythm outside the context of math/prog rock, or even European (even counting Turkey as honorary member) musical tradition:
    He's performing for tourists, and as Randall Collins would put it the attention is focused on him rather than any dancers.

    I had mentioned Kevin Simler's post on the evolutionary origins of human music (other species presumably have other reasons for their calls). It makes one wonder how far back it goes. And today youtube recommended this video of chimpanzees observing some drumming:
    One of them gets into it, moving rhythmically back and forth, sometimes clapping. The others just continue sitting there.

  5. Dancing also favors 2+3 rather than 3+2 for maintaining momentum. Weak beats can serve to either stabilize after a stressed motion, or wind up in preparation for a stressed motion. But you don't want the stabilizing beat(s) to over-stabilize -- that would kill the momentum, and grind the dance to a halt, requiring a restart. And you don't need much of a wind-up for a minor motion, compared to a major motion.

    Since stabilization is needed more after the primary stress than the secondary stress (a greater force to recover from), the weak beat(s) after 1 will serve as stabilizers.

    And since winding-up is needed more in advance of the primary stress than the secondary stress (a greater force to build up with potential energy), the weak beat(s) before 1 will serve as preparers.

    In 3+2, there are two weak beats after the main stress on 1, meaning stabilization lasts for two beats. That can be too long of a recovery process, and is more likely to dampen or halt the momentum. And at the end of the measure, there's only one beat worth of prearation (5) in advance of the major stress when 1 arrives again.

    So 3+2 has the priorities backwards -- it over-stabilizes after the primary stress, draining the momentum, and it offers too brief of a preparation for the major stress, limiting its impressive strength.

    Don't worry, 2+3 to the rescue. It has only one beat of stabilization after the primary stress -- enough to briefly recover from the largest shock, but not so much that the body gets slowed down and shut down. And it has two beats worth of preparation at the end of the measure, in advance of the primary stress on 1 -- allowing greater strength to be delivered when it is needed most.

    You can hear these differences among weak beats in the Balkan pop-folk songs, especially the first one. After the heaviest beat on 1, the 2 beat is a rest -- rhythmically almost non-existent. There is no bass drum, and no pulse from the bass guitar. There's only a snare drum (which is like the backbeat in Western rock music, hitting on a weak beat). That makes it dovetail with a bodily rest, recovering from the major motion on 1.

    During the other weak beats 4 and 5, there's still no bass drum since they're meant to be weak. But they do have support from the bass guitar, building up the riff to the cliffhanger before resolving it with the return to 1. And the 5 beat also has a snare drum (again like a backbeat in rock). Unlike the rest on weak beat 2, the weak beats 4 and 5 are more of a gradual build-up in rhythmic potential energy or tension.

    That's because they are not stabilizers -- they're not after the major stress -- but preparers, coming before the major stress.

  6. "Blue Rondo" vs. "Take Five" is corporeal vs. cerebral rhythms.

    "Blue Rondo" was inspired by a Turkish street dance. It's corporeal, folk, dance -- and it has the longest foot or grouping at the end of the measure. It has 9 beats, subdivided into 2+2+2+3.

    Although made of 9 rather than 5 beats, it's the same general principle as in the Balkan pop-folk -- the most wind-up at the end, in preparation for the biggest stress on the return to 1, and the briefer periods of rest at the start, to rest from the main stress while not over-stabilizing and killing the momentum.

    "Take Five" was developed by sophisticates and is cerebral, elite, and body-at-rest. It has the longest foot at the beginning, over-stabilizing after 1 and not allowing sufficient wind-up at the end of the measure.

    "Blue Rondo" is palpably more lively and body-engaging than the laid-back, disembodied-ghost-floating-through-space "Take Five". And the tempo is actually greater in "Take Five" -- 160 bpm, vs. 114 for "Blue Rondo".

    Evolutionarily, the inspiration for "Blue Rondo" -- and the larger class of folk dance music in the region -- has survived through a much more challenging test. I don't think "Take Five," and other sophisticated schemes with the longer feet up front in the measure, are going to survive as well.

    Already, "Take Five," and prog rock for that matter, are more of a novelty or curiosity than a phenomenon that caught on broadly and will endure similar tests of survival.

    And it's not because "Take Five" and prog require higher IQ, limiting their mass appeal -- "Blue Rondo" and many other Balkan folk dances plainly have more complex rhythmic structures than "Take Five" or garden-variety prog. It is not brainpower, but cerebral orientation, that limits their appeal. They are too divorced from dance to survive as well as the corporeally oriented musical styles that are interconnected with dance.

  7. More 5-beat songs from Balkan pop-folk, in 2+3. See 3:17 and 27:23 below. Same singer, band, and year as in the second song from the OP.

  8. Mission Impossible theme is 5 beats in 2+3. From the Swinging Sixties, the asymmetric rhythm gives it that exotic feel, and the 2+3 (rather than 3+2) gives it a more lively, action-packed groove than "Take Five". The MI theme also resonated with audiences better at the time and since then.

    Although the intent was to exotify and "mod"-ify the rhythm, it's actually deeply rooted in the culture of the makers and the audience -- going back at least to the Thracians, and likely earlier. Interestingly, the composer was an Argentine Jew, not an Indo-European, but his teachers and influences were mainly Indo-European, rather than a Jewish or other Hamito-Semitic source.

    As in Balkan pop-folk, main stress is on 1, a brief rest on 2 (but not enough to over-stabilize the momentum), secondary stress on 3, then gradual build-up on both 4 and 5, allowing enough time to prepare for the main stress on the return to 1.

    Technically, the rest on 2 is not a full note, and the medium stress on 3 comes in just a tad early for jazzy syncopation -- but basically the same as 2+3, crucially putting the two consecutive weak beats at the end rather than middle of the measure.

    It's only 50-some seconds, so not enough full development to be able to really get moving to, but it's one great seed of a dance song.

  9. Do you see a potential for credential deflation (and hence a halting of elite overproduction)?

  10. "It has 9 beats, subdivided into 2+2+2+3."

    All of your balkan examples of 5 beat music sound like they actually have this - rather than being a true 5, they are in four with the fourth beat being a one-and-a-half length beat - known as daichovo in Bulgaria (though there is often a secondary stress on the second subdivision of the fourth beat: ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR AND a).

    The Bulgarians do have a true five, but it is a fast five: the paidushko - the divisions into 5 are too fast to dance to, so they are grouped into two steps, a short one and a long one: one TWO and one TWO and, etc.

  11. It's 5 beats of equal weight. Use the 4-finger tapping test. Start with the pinky, then ring, middle, pointer, and back to the pinky again, using the same length of time on each finger.

    If the beats are of equal weight, then the 1st beat will shift forward by 1 finger after each measure. If the beats only add up to 4.5 units of weight (or 9 if you double them), then the 1st beat will shift by only 1/2 finger after each measure.

    Go to 3:45 in "Kajnana" and start tapping a single finger to get used to the tempo. Then when the clarinet solo starts around 3:54, and the rhythm is very clear to hear, start tapping the count on 4 fingers in order, starting with the pinky.

    Do this for many measures in a row, not just one. It's easy to hear how long the measure is because the bassline starts with a pulse, then a rest, and rises through the end, before it repeats.

    Sure enough, the 1st beat shifts by 1 finger after each measure.

    Another way: how many measures are needed before the 1st beat returns to the pinky finger? If the beats are equal weight, then it will return after 4 measures are completed. If they only add up to 4.5 (or 9) units of weight, then it will return after twice as many measures -- that is, after 8 measures.

    Sure enough, the 1st beat returns to the pinky after only 4 measures. The solo begins around 3:54, and by around 4:02 the 1st beat is back to the pinky, 4 measures later.


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