When Music is Off the Beat: What is Hemiola?

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about when music is off the beat. Now you might be thinking, “Music that’s off the beat? Maybe it’s jazz or ragtime, like The Entertainer.” But that’s not what this is about at all. This is about hemiola. There are a lot of examples of syncopated rhythms where emphasis is on the weak beats or off the beat entirely on the “ands”, but hemiola is different. There is a great example of hemiola in the Kuhlau Sonatina Opus 55, No. 1. In the second movement there’s a big chromatic scale going up. When it gets to the very top, that’s when the hemiola begins.

You probably have come across hemiola in your music and wondered how to count it, and why composers even utilize it.

Listen to a little bit of the Kuhlau Sonatina. Do you hear the way it comes down after the chromatic scale? The grouping of notes overlap the beats. It’s kind of odd. It’s actually a pattern of two that is superimposed on this piece which is in three. So you don’t have the comfort of the downbeat at the beginning of each pattern. That, in a nutshell, is what hemiola is. It can be a very effective technique for giving a rhythmic accent that you don’t expect in music.

How do you approach hemiola?

You must count and you must count correctly! If you succumb to the hemiola and let it trick you into thinking in a different time signature where the hemiola is, it’ll mess you up. You must maintain the integrity of the time signature in hemiola. You don’t have to accent the beats. You can play it and let it be a flourish that’s off the beat even though you’re counting it correctly. It’s a wonderful compositional technique. I want all of you to check out your scores. Find places you think you might have hemiola. You’re welcome to share them in the comments here on LivingPianos.com and YouTube. I hope this is enjoyable for you and provides some insights into your music. Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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