Rhythm – what really counts?

Galileo Pendulum

Rhythm is the beating heart of music, from the powerful throb of heavy rock to the sensual swing of jazz and the ‘vacillating rhythm’ of romantic rubato. For many musicians and listeners today, the very word ‘expressive’ suggests rhythmic fluidity. Around the year 1600, John Dowland, William Shakespeare, and Giulio Caccini agree that rhythm is a high priority:

Music is nothing else than Text, and Rhythm, and Sound last of all. And not the other way around!

Caccini Le nuove musiche 1601/2

But what did 17th-century musicians mean by Rhythm? A rock drummer’s groove? A jazz singer’s swing? 20th-century rubato? Just as instruments, pitch and temperament, bowing styles and ornamentation all vary between different periods and repertoires, so the aesthetics of rhythm also show historical change.

This is a huge subject. Detailed investigation of attitudes to rhythm around 1600 are a major strand of our six-year Performance research program at the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions. Dance and Swordsmanship sources set the context for musical tempo. Frescobaldi, Caccini and Peri give us insights into Italian subtleties of rhythm. The very concept of Time itself must be studied, in order to understand how musicians were thinking in that pre-Newtonian age.

Isaac Newton

(Isaac Newton Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica 1687 sets out the concept of Absolute Time)

Nevertheless, the essential practicalities of period Rhythm are already well understood, although only partially applied in today’s Early Music performances. George Houle’s 1987 Meter in Music, 1600-1800 provides a summary of historical sources, setting the context for this period of fundamental change. 17th-century theorists and performers tried to reconcile incompatible elements: the old system of triple-time proportions and the newly fashionable French dances; the gradual shift from proportional signs to modern time-signatures; the persistent concept of a (more-or-less) fixed tempo ordinario and the proliferation of speed-modifying words, allegro, andante etc; the distinction between measured meter and modern accentual rhythm.

But what simple, practical guide-lines can we draw from all this?

As elementary music students, many of us were taught to manage difficult rhythms by counting the smallest note-values, adding these up to measure longer notes. Before 1800, the contrary held: musicians counted a long note-value, and divided this up to measure shorter notes. Purely mathematically, there should be no difference between the two approaches, but (since musicians are human), the practical results are measurably different. Even more importantly, the slow count feels different.

Around 1600, this slow count is called Tactus. Its slow constancy is an imitation of the perfect motion of the stars, whose circular orbits create the heavenly sounds of the Music of the Spheres. It is felt in the human body as the heart-beat and pulse, or measured as a walking step. In practical music-making, it can be shown by an up-and-down movement of the hand, or by a swinging pendulum.

(Of course, 17th-century musicians did not have digital watches or metronomes, but Galileo had noted the pendulum effect around 1588, observing a swinging chandelier in Pisa cathedral – see illustration above. In another posting, I’ll report on some recent experiments with pendulum tactus.)

Around 1600, typically the Tactus will be on minims (half-notes), somewhere around MM60. Down for one second, Up for the next second. You create crotchets (quarter notes) by dividing each Down and each Up in two. “Down-and-Up-and.”

The simple, steady movement of the hand, Down-Up, makes it easy to manage changes of Proportion. Keep the hand movement the same, but now divide it into three beats on the Down, and another three on the Up: this gives Tripla. Making the Down long, and the Up short (whilst keeping the duration of the whole Down-Up cycle the same) gives Sesquialtera: two beats on Down, one on Up.

Grouping notes into phrases, and choosing where to place the accents is independent of Tactus. Tactus simply measures time. This is the crucial difference between early and modern attitudes to rhythm: Tactus and Accent are independent, whereas our modern Downbeat implies accentuation.

The independence of Tactus and Accent allowed 17th-century musicians to notate triple rhythm under what looks to us like a “common time time-signature” of C. Time is being measured by dividing the minim tactus into two crotchets, but the music is phrased in groups of three crotchets. Professional dancers do something similar today, counting everything in blocks of 8, so that a waltz is counted:


Before 1800, counting (i.e. measuring time) and accent are independent. They can coincide, but they don’t have to.

Tactus and Proportion were central concepts in period music-making.

Tactus directs a Song according to Measure.

John Dowland Micrologus (1609) translated from Ornithoparcus (1517).

Ha, ha, keep time! How sour sweet music is / When Time is broke, and no Proportion kept!

William Shakespeare Richard II Act V Scene v (c 1595)

In today’s Early Music, the acceptance of Tactus principles varies. Stronger principles are supported by academics more than they are applied by performers.

  • Slow count

This is widely accepted, and many performers work with and teach a slow count.

  • Proportions

Amongst academics, there is debate about precisely how to interpret Proportional changes, but the central concept of an underlying constant slow count is not contested. Amongst performers, adherence to Proportions is regarded as ‘hard-core’ HIP, and ‘too academic’ for some.

  • Consistent Tactus: a whole “Song according to Measure”

Though the period evidence supports this, very few performers are prepared to relinquish their romantic rubato.

  • “Tactus directs a Song”

In most modern performances, a conductor directs.

  • Soloists follow the accompaniment

Explicitly stated by Leopold Mozart (1756), clearly implied by Jacopo Peri (1600), and the basis of the entire period practice of Divisions, this is almost universally ignored today.

  • Rhythm in Recitative

Most singers today are astonished at the mere suggestion that Monteverdi might actually have meant something by all those complex rhythms that he forced his printers to set in type.

  • Tactus in Recitative

Very few performers have tried this. However, conductors in recitative are commonplace…

  • Consistent Tactus for a large-scale work

I was first introduced to this concept by Holger Eichhorn, director of the Berlin ensemble, Musicalische Compagney. Paradoxically, consistent Tactus often results in more contrast in what the listeners hear, since (without the discipline of Tactus) musicians tend to pick a slower tempo when the notes go fast, ironing out the composed contrasts. It is very rarely tried today.

  • Consistent Tactus for an entire repertoire, say all Caccini songs, or everything by Monteverdi.   

There is considerable evidence for this, and some academics argue for it. I know of only one other musician today who supports it in practice: continuo-guru Jesper Christensen.

At CHE, we are investigating Baroque Time, researching period Philosophy and the aesthetics of Rhythm, testing all our findings and hypotheses in experimental productions. Our six-year mission is to boldly go where 17th-century musicians have gone before, but few performers today have followed: we are applying all these Tactus principles in teaching, rehearsals and performance. So far, the results are academically and artistically convincing, with performers and (most importantly) audiences responding very positively.

You can see a video report of our Tactus-based production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo here.

But I’ll give the last word to John Dowland:

Above all things keep the equality of measure. For to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself…


Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.



12 thoughts on “Rhythm – what really counts?

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  9. Hi Andrew, my name is Hester and I’m interested in getting your thoughts on performing Barbara Strozzi’s “Lamento”. I’m friends with Joanna Tondys and we were discussing your thoughts as outlined above. All the recordings I find of the “Lamento” are very free and there is virtually no constant tactus. According to you, this is incorrect. What I would like to know is, how much freedom is there in the tactus? Should it remain exactly constant, and the singer takes responsibility for freedom in the melody, or is there some room for rubato-like effects at certain points? And in the Lamento should all sections remain at the same tactus? E.g. should the “aria adagio” and “strofa” sections have the same tactus? Thank you!

    • Dear Hester, thank you for your comment and questions. Yes, most performers today use a lot of rubato, and do not use Tactus. It’s not me that says this is ‘incorrect’, but there are certainly many 17th-century sources that contradict such an approach. I would recommend a change of starting point: rather than trying to establish ‘how much freedom is there’, start by trying to be as steady and constant as you (humanly) can. Try to add all the contrasts of affetto with changes of tone-colour, with communication of the meaning of each individual word, rather than by changing the tempo. Don’t practise with a metronome, it’s the wrong kind of precision, but you might consider practising with a 1-metre long pendulum. Try to acquire a deep appreciation of what this steady slow beat FEELS like, for its emotional qualities. See my more recent posting “Quality time” for more on this.

      Before messing around with the rhythm, explore the emotional communication of the piece as text in performance. Have a look at the ideas of early baroque hypnosis, here.

      Once you feel good about powerful emotions with steady Tactus, then (and only then!) you can explore how/how much/where they changed the Tactus in this period. The key sources are Caccini (here) and Frescobaldi (post forthcoming). Contrary to popular belief today, Caccini does not talk so much about rhythmic freedom, and he uses it very little, in his example madrigals. Read him for yourself…

      Finally, I would take “Aria Adagio” to be an instruction for a steady Tactus (Aria implies rhythmic regularity) but at a slower-than-usual tempo (Adagio). I’ll have to look at the piece itself to answer your more specific question.

      In summary: rather than making rhythmic freedom your primary tool of expression, I recommend doing everything else you possibly can first, at steady Tactus. Caccini implies that you might use ‘senza misura’ just once in the whole piece. Frescobaldi shows that you can change to a steady-but-different Tactus between movements (Frescobaldi’s word is ‘passi’), if the text requires it. Caccini uses ‘con misura piu larga’ just once in all his example pieces.

      • Dear Andrew, thank you very much for your extremely helpful and informative reply. I’ve re-read my Caccini at least 3 times over the past 10 years but I think I’ll have to go back again, and also the Quantz! I realised I gave you the wrong Strozzi title, as it’s actually the “Lagrime Mie”. I’m enjoying reading your articles. How can I find out about any talks or workshops you give in Australia on the History of Emotions? I would be very interested in attending. Thank you, Hester.

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