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Understanding metric modulation

If your violin skill level is in the beginner to intermediate range, you may or may not have heard of metric modulation. Simply put, metric modulation is a mathematical strategy that allows musicians to achieve a smooth change in tempo during a piece. In order to understand metric modulation, you need to have an understanding of note values, rhythmic subdivisions, and time signature. Let’s break down what metric modulation is and how it fits into string music.

From the perspective of a string player

Mechanical metronome with a moving pendulum, showing tempo markings from Largo to Prestissimo on a black and red background.

One of the foundations of music theory is understanding time signatures. Time signature specifically describes the number and types of notes in a measure of music. Any musical score will include notation that indicates how to interpret the rhythm of the piece and keep the beat. Each notation will have two numbers: a bottom number that reveals which note is being used to count the beat, and a top number that indicates how many beats are in each measure. Once you’ve grasped time signature, you can begin to analyze meter, rhythm, and tempo within the piece. Meter refers to how notes are grouped and repeated, while rhythm is the length of the notes themselves. Tempo is simply measured by beats per minute (BPM), indicating the pacing of the song.

Not every piece will have the same tempo or rhythm throughout; genres like jazz and progressive rock are especially known for tempo changes during the piece. This technique is called metric modulation and allows musicians to build seamless transitions between two different time signatures, note values, or rhythmic subdivisions. This is typically done by changing the amount of beats in a measure without changing the note used. Essentially, you’re assigning new note values in order to shift the rhythmic center of the piece.

Let’s start with some 8th note triplets played in 4/4. There are 12 triplets in each measure. This is typically understood as 4 beats split into 3 parts each so the underlying pulse aligns on each beat. However, we can shift the pulse by playing an accent once every 4 triplets, essentially resulting in 3 groupings each divided into 4 parts. The triplets will continue to move at the same pace, even though the accent of the piece is changing. Understanding metric modulation is key to improving your internal sense of time and improvisation skills. For string players, you’re likely to experience metric modulation in certain classical pieces.

Try it yourself

Metric modulation is the kind of thing that you may or may not encounter in your music, but will help you play like a professional if you understand it. Learning metric modulation enhances your understanding of musical notation and time, as well as giving you the ability to perform and improvise more complex pieces. If we’ve piqued your interest, there are a variety of examples of metric modulation available online. Whether you’re looking for input from a violin teacher or demonstrations within popular music, there is no shortage of content diving into standard and implied metric modulation. For more information about how to learn music theory concepts like metric modulation, visit our site.

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