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A new perspective on the performance of dotted rhythms

Author(s): Dorottya Fabian and Emery Schubert

Source: Early Music, Vol. 38, No. 4, Three centuries of music in England (November 2010),
pp. 585-588
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Accessed: 05-12-2017 13:17 UTC

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Dorottya Fabian and Emery Schubert

A new perspective on the performance of

dotted rhythms

issue of how to perform dotted rhythms in ting can be expressed as a ratio 0.75:0.25, with 0.75
Baroque music has been much debated in past referring to the proportion of time allotted to the
decades. The greatest proliferation of papers on the first note and 0.25 to the second note in the dyad.
matter occurred in the late 1960s and throughout In recommending over-dotting, the double-dotted
the 1970s, but even as recently as the 1990s further ratio (0.875:0.125) is implicated in notation (by pla-
arguments and evidence were put forward and then cing two dots after the long note and adjusting the
challenged. The consensus generally tended to ad- rhythmic value of the short note(s)) even if it is
vocate over-dotting where such patterns were pre- acknowledged that the more open-ended 'over-
dominant, and was challenged by the lone voice of dotting' term should be used instead of the specific
the late Frederick Neumann.1 We now argue that the 'double-dotting'.4 A further matter that is discussed
debate on dotting has overlooked a critical aspect of at some length but with less emphasis is related to
the problem - the distinction between the perception articulation: whether or not a rest should be inserted
versus the performance of dotting. Our recent find- between the long and the short note and how long
ings indicate that the two are not the same; a real- such a rest might be. In the course of the various
ization which may explain why divergent opinions arguments, but particularly in the relevant sections
could arise and, in turn, may put the controversy to of historical treatises,5 both the dotting ratio and the
rest. The following observation is not meant to re- pattern's articulation are discussed in the context of
visit the musicological arguments; its intention is Affekty or the musical character created.
rather to draw the attention of readers to the results We became interested in the issue through Dor-
of a series of studies published in the music psych- ottya Fabian's ongoing investigation of changing per-
ology domain because we believe the findings to be forming conventions throughout the 20th century
of interest to early music scholars and practitioners.2 as evidenced by sound recordings. Reading this lit-
In summary, the debate about the performance of erature while listening to dozens of versions of the
dotted rhythms focuses, by and large, on the ques- same pieces and noting striking differences in inter-
tion of whether or not the ratio of dotting should pretations led us to measure what performers do
be literal or flexible when performing pieces where and to study how listeners perceive the various inter-
dotted rhythms are prevalent. The most com- pretations. Further, we wanted to find out to what
monly examined genre is the French overture, but extent variations in dotting ratio influenced the dif-
researchers often refer to other music as well, such ferent interpretations. Preliminary calculations of
as gigues. According to David Fuller, for instance, performed dotting ratios from measured note dura-
over-dotting is desirable in 'pieces with ternary tions confirmed the use of over-dotting across nearly
groups of dotted eighth, sixteenth and eights', a all the recordings studied. The results were intriguing
context our studies have investigated.3 A literal dot- because they led to the questioning of the relevance of

Early Musky Vol. xxxvm, No.The

4 Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. 585
doi:10.1093/em/caq079, available online at
Advance Access published on September 30, 2010

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debating the appropriateness of over-dotting while in interpretations rated as 'gigue' and those rated as
implying that some other parameters might be at least 'siciliano'. This indicates that the role of dotting in
as crucial in creating the audible differences. Subse- creating a musical character is perhaps less signifi-
quently we studied the matter further by preparing cant than the role of articulation and/or tempo. The
detailed measurements of performance features and most significant result was, however, that versions
by collecting responses from listeners regarding the rated by the listeners as 'siciliano' were also judged
perception of the measured features as well as the as less dotted than those rated as 'gigue' even though
judged overall qualities of the interpretations. the performed dotting ratios were the same. This
Our detailed study involved 34 recordings of demonstrates that the performance of dotting acts in
Variation 7 from Bach's Goldberg Variations (see tandem with other features to influence the percep-
ex.i for opening) made between 1933 and 2000, and tion of dotting, i.e. the 'dottedness' of a performance.
98 listeners with varied levels of musical experience.6 Therefore the new perspective on the 'dot-
Admittedly the piece represents a single compos- ting debate' can be summarized thus: listeners
ition and not even a French overture. On the other (whether professional musicians or lay audiences)
hand, it matches the context mentioned specifically are deceived by tempo and articulation in their per-
by Fuller, cited earlier. Furthermore, as will soon be- ception of rhythm. While the judgement of tempo
come clear, the most important matter to report is and articulation accurately reflected variation in
not so much what performers do but what listeners performed tempo and articulation respectively, the
hear, and in this regard one piece of music can serve judgement of the 'dottedness' of an interpretation
as a sufficient demonstration. was incongruous with performed dotting. Legato
Among the selected recordings there was only one and slower performances were consistently rated as
version (Helmut Walcha on harpsichord in 1953) less dotted even when the dotting ratio was the same
where the average dotting ratio was literal and one as in faster and more staccato versions. To investi-
other (Glenn Gould, 1981) where it was under-dotted. gate this phenomenon more closely we replicated
On all others the average dotting ratio for the dot- the listening task using controlled MIDI stimuli to-
ted note was typically around 0.79. In other words gether with selected commercial recordings of the
the performers used over-dotting but not double same piece, Variation 7 from the Goldberg Varia-
dotting. The ratio of dotting fluctuated in every per- tions. Literal and double-dotted ratios, slow and fast
formance seemingly randomly but at times according tempos, and staccato and legato articulation were
to some possible interpretative strategy. For instance, rated by 70 participants (34 experienced and 36 in-
the down-beats might be more dotted than the off- experienced Baroque music listeners). The results
beats, every second bar could be less dotted, or the confirmed the auditory illusion at play: both naive
first half of the eight-bar phrase slightly more dot- and musically experienced listeners rated staccato
ted than the second half, and so on. However, most and/or faster versions of the same dotting ratios as
recordings did not show any particular regularity in more dotted than the legato and/or slower versions.8
the variation of dotting. Among all this fluctuation, The discovery of this auditory illusion may be the
double-dotted ratios were rarely measured, the high- missing clue that puts an end to the debate regard-
est average dotting being 0.82 and the lowest 0.77. ing the appropriateness of over- dotting. While
On the other hand, tempo and articulation dif- listeners (including theoreticians) may well be-
fered considerably across the 34 recordings and lieve they respond to the 'dottedness' of a render-
the perceived musical character ranged from the ing, their judgement involuntarily alludes to some
tranquil Siciliano to the bright and bouncy Gigue.7 higher order musical construct that incorporates
While performances in these two musical character tempo and articulation. These studies demonstrate
groups differed in articulation and tempo (those cat- that perceived dotting is not the same as performed
egorized as gigue were faster and more staccato while dotting and consequently the source of the contro-
the sicilianos were slower and more legato) there was versy underlying the dotting debate can be traced
no systematic difference in the performed dotting to this (till now) covert difference: Humans (at least
ratio. The exact same dotting ratio could be found those living at the beginning of the 21st century, but


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Ex.i J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations BWV988, opening of Variation 7

(Uif /~Tr Qylp PT p|r tfr|rrr t'rir rirrlttrr f|^

quite likely those living in the 17th and 18th cen- the desired Affekt. Now that the auditory illusion has
turies as well) hear identical dotting ratios as being been identified it is imperative to shift the emphasis
more dotted when they are played faster or more in current arguments away from the dotting ratio
staccato. Although it may seem that what 20th- to the interaction of performance parameters that
century performers did and what 21st-century contribute to the 'dottedness' of an interpretation.
listeners hear have little bearing on what Bach's In sum, there is not much point in debating dot-
contemporaries did, the results point to something ting ratios or the appropriateness of over-dotting
more 'hard wired' in the brain, which is unlikely to as though the link between listening and perform-
have changed in the interim 300 or so years. Being ance were veridical. The crucial new perspective that
unaware of the illusion, the advice in treatises is has to be borne in mind in any future discussion of
simply - but only partially correctly - to play the dotting is the need to differentiate between some-
pattern more dotted when the desired affect is thing sounding over-dotted versus something played
'lively', 'fiery', 'solemn', 'bold' or 'joyous', and exe- over-dotted. Critics of performances of Baroque
cute literal or less noticeably elongated dotting in music do not need to dwell on the issue of whether
'sleepy', 'pleasing', 'flattering', etc. pieces.9 The em- an interpretation is over-dotted or not and how this
phasis is obviously on the musical character and might relate to historical practices but whether a
discussions in some treatises (for example, Turk) do convincing or suitable musical character (i.e. Affekt)
mention concurrent articulation needed to achieve has been achieved and how.

Dorottya Fabian is an Associate Professor and lectures in musicology at the University of New South
Wales, Australia. Her research focuses on changing performance styles evidenced by sound recordings.
She aims to combine historical-analytical investigations with experimental examinations of listeners'
perception. Currently she is working on two large projects funded by the Australian Research Council;
one investigates expressiveness in Baroque and Romantic music performance, the other aims to identify
individual artistic signatures of prominent violinists of the past century in interpretations of sonatas by
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,

Emery Schubert is an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. He works in the music
and music education discipline and is a Leader of the Empirical Musicology Group. His research interests
are concerned with the 'scientific9 study of music aesthetics, including measuring and predicting emo-
tional responses to music continuously. Emery was President of the Australian Music and Psychology
Society (AMPS) until 2009.

1 For the various views contributing interpretation of early music (London, Music, v/3 (1977), pp.310-24;
to the debate, see A. Dolmetsch, The 1963); F. Neumann, 'La note pointee et F. Neumann, Essays in performance
interpretation of the music of the la soi-disant "maniere francaise"', practice (Ann Arbor, 1982);
I7th-i8th centuries (London, 1915); Revue de musicologie, li (1965), F. Neumann, Performance practices of
T. Dart, The interpretation of music pp.66-92, trans, as 'The dotted note the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
(London, 1954); R. Donington, The and the so-called French "Style', Early (New York, 1993). See also M. Collins,


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'A reconsideration of French over- 2 E. Schubert and D. Fabian, 'notational irregularities that lengthen
dotting', Music & Letters, 1 (January 'Preference and perception in dotted as well as shorten the dot' and quotes
1969), pp.111-23; D. Fuller, 'Dotting, the6/8 patterns by experienced and less Loulie who wrote that the dot may
"French style" and Frederick experienced Baroque music listeners', 'augment the notes by 1/8, or 1/4 or 3/8,
Neumann's Counter-Reformation', Journal of Music Perception and or 1/2, or 5/8, or 3/4, or 7/8. . .'
Early Music, v/4 (i977)> PP-517-43; Cognition, vii/2 (2001), pp.113-32; depending on the notes that follow
J. O'Donnell, 'The French style and the D. Fabian and E. Schubert, 'Expressive (Neumann, Performance practices,
overtures of Bach', Early Music, vii/2-3 devices and perceived musical characterpp.101-2).
(i979)> pp.190-6 and 336-45; G. Pont, in 34 performances of Variation 7 from 5 For example, those of Quantz (1752),
'Handel's overtures for harpsichord Bach's Goldberg Variations*, Musicae C. P. E. Bach (1753) and Turk (1789)
and organ', Early Music, xi/3 (1983), Scientiae Special Issue 2003, pp.49-71; cited by Dolmetsch, Donington and
pp.309-22. For a review of the issues D. Fabian and E. Schubert, 'Musical
and for further examinations, see Hefling, among others.
character and the performance and
D. Fabian, Bach performance practice 6 The performances are listed in
perception of dotting, articulation and
1945-1975: a comprehensive review of Fabian and Schubert, 'Musical
tempo in recordings of Variation 7 of
sound recordings and literature J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (bwv
(Aldershot, 2003), esp. ch.6; S. Hefling, 988)' Musicae Scientiae, xii (Fall 2008), 7 For a detailed methodology and
Rhythmic alteration in seventeenth- and pp.177-203. discussion of the psychological aspects
eighteenth-century music (New York, of the research as applied to music, see
1993); W. Malloch, 'Bach and the 3 Fuller, 'Dotting, the "French style"',
Fabian and Schubert, 'Musical
P- 541.
French ouverture', Musical Quarterly, character'.
lxxv (Summer 1991), pp.174-201; M. 4 Donington emphasizes that 'the
8 Schubert and Fabian, 'Preference
Dirst, 'Bach's French overtures and the lengthening of the dot may vary
greatly, and can be quite free and and perception'.
politics of overdotting', Early Music,
xxv/i (1997), pp.35-44; I. Abravaya, 'A unmathematical' (Donington, The 9 For citations from historical treatises
French overture revisited', Early Music, interpretation, p.441); Neumann draws see Hefling, Rhythmic alteration, pp.84,
xxv/i (1997), pp.47-61. attention to sources that explain 86, 101-5, 121, 123.


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