A good performance is so full of these minute retardations and accelerations that hardly two measures will occupy exactly the same time. It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically - the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy. It may therefore be suggested, in conclusion, that the use of the metronome, even to determine the average rate of speed, is dangerous.
Alas, it seems that skirmish, at least in some areas, is long lost... If you combine a little metronomic beat with the tyranny of the barline and add in a characteristic accentuation that comes from rock n' roll, then you get a structure that underlies an amazing amount of the music we hear every day. I call it the "tyranny of the backbeat". What's a backbeat? Nearly all popular music these days, certainly all that derives from rock, is in 4/4 meter, meaning that beats come in 4 beat packages. Normally the first beat is stressed, which helps to define the package. In rock, the 2nd and 4th beats are stressed instead. This is a kind of syncopation in that it places the accents in an unexpected place. But it is so ubiquitous now, that it is like a rigid Procrustean bed that all music is forced to lie on. Well, a lot of music at least! Here is the locus classicus:
- — Daniel Gregory Mason; The Tyranny of the Bar-Line
Just let me hear some of that rock'n'roll music
Any old way you choose it
It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it
Any old time you use it
There are exceptions, but they are amazingly few. Here is a rock song where the stresses are reversed. The effect is to restore the feeling of syncopation! Neophyte drummers are so programmed to stress 2 and 4 that they sometimes have difficulty with this song:
UPDATE: Due to link-rot that clip had vanished. If this one goes to, the clip in question is "Sunshine of Your Love by Cream which, due to the inventive drumming of Ginger Baker, does NOT have a backbeat, but instead, heavy stresses on 1 and 3.
Do you hear it? It sounds like the beat is oddly shifted--not because it is, 1 and 3 are stressed--but because the backbeat has become so ubiquitous that it is ingrained into us, at least with this type of music. Let's choose some random examples from YouTube to see how prevalent it is.
I almost thought my brilliant theory was going to be undercut by the first clip, but no, around the 53 second mark it settles into a backbeat.
Yep, more backbeat. Oh, by the way, I am finding these by going to YouTube and typing in a single letter to see what comes up. I started with 'L'. Here's another:
Now that's a particularly aggressive example. The backbeat is bad enough, but when it is delivered by a drum machine, I like it even less. Another:
Yep, but at least this time it's a real drummer. I've done 'l', 'm', 'n', and 'o'. How about 'p'?
That's the first one with a slight divergence from the backbeat. While two is heavily stressed, they mess around with 4 a bit.
But I think you get my point. And my impression is that with the generic stuff you often hear out in public, in malls and restaurants, it is even worse. AAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I have this vision of generations of impressionable young minds and ears growing up permanently infected with the backbeat, unable to feel and appreciate the subtle expression and rubato that we have enjoyed for centuries if not millennia.