Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2004 Motif Symposium – "Links Between Motif and Meter in the Course of Observational Movement Analysis"

Submitted by Kevin T. Frey - January 30, 2006

[The following is reprinted from “Seeing, Doing and Writing Movement,” Proceedings of the Motus Humanus Advanced Seminar in conjunction with Motif Symposium II, July 15-18, 2004, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, Illinois. Jimmyle Listenbee, editor.]


This paper will identify meter as a principle in the observation of movement. Meter is defined here as the measurement of duration with rhythm marked through the sequence of movements. I begin with distinctions between timeline and rhythm, and then demonstrate how Meter exists even with differing degrees of pulse regularity. Using brief taped examples of movement sequences, I will present ideas of meter as qualitative as well as quantitative through Motif Description as the means for identifying particular duration. Whether meter is formed during the course of performance, or exists as an entity external to a movement sequence, distinctive concepts of beginning/end, anacrusis/downbeat and accent will be discussed, drawing from past and current metrical theories in the field of music. Distinctions between Meter and Vera Maletic's Phrase and Phrasing work will be presented.

(Kine)Meter: Metric Presence in the Context of Movement Observation

Once a lava lamp is warm, our attention is attracted to the movement within the tube. Using our skills of movement observation, we see the recurring cycle of up and down motion – but how is this reconciled with the dynamic shaping of the bubbles themselves? Is it actually repetitive cyclic motion, or is it a continual unfolding of new pattern? Regardless of how we choose to interpret our observation, the closed system of the lava lamp suggests the presence of Meter, a mechanism for measuring the events in the tube. This type of mechanism could be useful for Movement Observation.



I traveled to China a couple of weeks ago; one among many wonderful experiences was the temporal challenge of crossing the international dateline. Going over, I lost a whole day – landing a day later than I when I left – Saturday for me didn’t exist. Coming home, though, I gained an extra day – I had two Sundays. This presentation focuses on our ability to functionally measure time in the context of experience.

Meter, in the Performing Arts, is often discussed in the context of musical performance and I will draw liberally from theories and conceptions of musical meter. But I want to lead to the prospect of Metrical presence in the context of Movement Observation.

Main Objective

My main objective is to expand the notion of METER as not only a predetermined and rigid measurement of time. METER, is perceived through recurrence, but is not necessarily a fixed and rigidly repeating recurrence.

Movement Observation is important to the craft of Dance Notation, with the use of notation symbols common to both. Dance Notation, historically, records details of compositional frameworks. A good dancer/mover, however, communicates the composition clearly. Interpretation of meaning in a fixed compositional work of art is different than the interpretational task for the Observer. A good Observer communicates meaning of the actual movement during the course of performance and uses notation as a tool. MOTIF, for example, is useful for quickly writing notes during observation.

For me, Movement Observation entails the objective categories of body, space, energy; shape and relationship. Our perception of the way these elements come together in a performance, is the stuff of OBSERVATION. There are many approaches to Method of Observation - as it should be - to be useful.

Observation begins with a focal purpose - the method is front-loaded, with ANALYSIS playing a key part of the purpose, an approach to analysis integral to its method. The ideal is not to see everything, but only those elements deemed important for meaningful contextual analysis and summary of movement.

The construct of Meter, or measurement, guides our perception of FORM. In the context of Observation, Meter could provide a construct for understanding the Formal BEHAVIOR of the Observed. METER measures. It offers insight and access to these various perceptions of Form.

What is Meter?

I contend that Meter is Fluid, formed in the course of performance. There may be prescriptive directions that help us OBSERVE an intended Metrical scheme, such as a repetitive swinging movement or 3/4 time signature. But in the realm of OBSERVATION, predictable schematics are not always maintained.

EXAMPLE 1 (VIDEO) – Two Professional Wrestlers in the Squared Circle
(1) These athletes work routines, choreographed and rehearsed, then improvised in performance;
(2) certain combinations are worked to a count or rhythmic cadence. The initiations of these Metrical schemes must be fluid, in response to the audience reactions. The Meter of their performance does not exist without the call and response.

Meter in Context

To perceive METER in the context of Observation, we begin with a number of premises:
1. Meter is present in the rhythm of Movement
2. It is dependent upon performance.
3. Meter measures within the fluidness of rhythm.
4. Meter is formed by regular recurrence
5. Is determined by the Observer.
6. It is possible to determine a singular Meter in a work.

EXAMPLE 2 (VIDEO) – European Round Dance
We can see repetitive, regularly recurring movements in this example of a European Round Dance. I think it clearly demonstrates these basic premises of Metric occurrence.
Quantity or Quality

We know that METER MEASURES, but is it measuring QUANTITIES or QUALITIES? Is it measuring the number of occurrences? Is it the QUANTITATIVE measurement of an occurrence - such as length of time or the degrees above or below par? Or the Qualitative measurement of an occurrence - such as how it happens, that matters? Or is it a combination of both Quantity and Quality?
I had a birthday earlier this week – my measured lifespan reaches into the 40’s. The card I received had a quote by Pamela Palmer pertaining to measurement: “Some measure days by dreams, and some by flowers.”


A TIMELINE consists of a perceptual construct for events to flow through time. The Timeline denotes Pulses, defined by Beatpoints - instants that may or may not bear the aspect of quantitative durational time span - but exist nonetheless. It may be Natural, such as the seasons, or Intuitive, as with our breath. Or it may be Mechanical, such as a metronome, or Imposed by the consciousness: METER regulates those Timeline events.

EXAMPLE 3 (AUDIO) – “BLOW”, Miles Davis, trumpet
a) On the first track, Miles plays solo with no accompaniment. He creates solo melody containing space, or rests. Initially, it is not necessarily apparent as to the nature of Miles' Timeline reference. Is it a mechanical or intuitive timeline?
b) On the next track, a Beat Groove accompanies the same solo melody; a mechanical Timeline becomes evident. The beat also exhibits a clear measurement of 4 beats in a recurring pattern, a Meter in 4 that Miles develops his lines against.

Concepts of Traditional Meter

At this juncture, it is relevant to provide a brief summary of the traditional elements of Meter that we are taught as performing artists:

(1) Meter comes from the Greek, METRON, and (organization) a musical composition into measures (from Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.) French-mesure; German-Takt; Italian-tempo, mesura; Spanish-tiempo, compas (Harvard Dictionary of Music.)

The pattern in which a steady succession of rhythmic pulses is organized; also termed time. Western music is characterized by the regular recurrence of such patterns. One complete pattern [or its equivalent in length] is termed a measure and in notation is enclosed between two bar lines.

(2) Meters are indicated by a fraction with the denominator indicating the basic note-value of the pattern and the numerator indicates the number of such note-values making up the pattern. Meters are of two principle types - duple or triple. 2/4 and 3/4; 4/4 a special case of duple and 6/8, dividing basic duple into threes is considered as compound meter.


3) Perception of meter is a function of organization of pitch as well as duration. The first new beat of each recurrence is the downbeat/strongbeat. Others described as weak in varying ways. (Harvard Dictionary of Music, p.489)

EXAMPLE 4 (VIDEO) Cuban Rumba and African Mandinka Drumming
These two short video clips, one of flirtatious Cuban Rumba guaguancó, rhythmically organized around the clave, and one of polyrhythmic African Mandinka drumming and dancing, show drummers and dancers interacting. The composite information from our observation tests the limits of our perception of Meter from the Western definition. In the course of Observation, the prospect of multiple synchronous Meters: a Body-meter, Spatio-Meter, Energy-Meter – plus multiple musical Meters – creates a complex web of Metrical measurements. With this many Meters happening simultaneously, I’m afraid adding Metrical counterpoint to movement observation would obfuscate rather than reveal. More importantly, this idea negates my premise stated earlier that it is possible to determine a singular Meter in a work. In review, however, we see that the other premises regarding Meter hold true for these examples. After viewing Example 4, we must consider #6 below no longer to be a viable premise.

When observing, multiple components are taking our focus. Body, Space, Energy + sound/music. There is a built in counterpoint, making a single METER, as we describe in Western conceptual terms, difficult to determine.

Cycle vs. Recurrence

Up to this point, I have suggested that Meter, as we define it, has some limitations. Meter may be more than a fixed function. In the traditional definition, Meter is formed by "regular recurrences." Cycle is one manifestation of recurrence.

There exist multiple synchronous simultaneous cycles in Indonesian Gamelan, revealing,
1) a concept other than a singular measuring of pattern, and
2) this measuring is not hierarchical.

EXAMPLE 5 (VIDEO) - Gamelan Degung (small court ensemble)

What we learn from this suggests that Meter is not rigid - because while Gamelan cycles are pre-determined as composition, there is not ONE fixed Meter - there are many Meters working together. It is not Western Meter at all - it is Cyclic construction.

I am suggesting today that our traditional notions of Meter not trap us. But before we move to discard elements from the traditional Western textbook definition presented earlier, let's use it to determine what is essential to Meter:

  • The pattern is which a steady succession of rhythmic pulses is organized (also termed time); Meter requires a TIMELINE; Performance establishes this Timeline, with the PULSE determined by the Observer.
  • Regular recurrence of such patterns (WHAT DEFINES THE PATTERN?)
  • Pattern is enclosed between barline denoting a METHOD OF NOTATION. Both MUSICAL AND MOTIF DANCE NOTATION have methods of SHOWING METER
  • Fraction denoting meter. Two components a) number of pulses, which may or not be relevant; and b) calibration or value of pulse. The denominator is arbitrarily determined although contextually considered.
  • Categorized by two types - duple and triple. A distinction between types is deemed useful for observation.
  • Perception of meter is a function of organization of pitch and duration. This means there are two components of perception.
  • The first new beat is a strong beat and others defined as weak beats. Metered pulses have position within the pattern. One beat is accented or emphasized. In Western music, to the position of the beginning, in Gamelan music, to the position of the end.
Another way to summarize these salient features:
1. timeline/pulse
2. recurrence of pattern
3. notation with barlines
4. calibration/denominator
5. organization of components
6. types of metrical structure
7. Accent


ACCENT is a study in itself. Here are some thoughts on Accent related to Meter:

1. Early history the accent in Musical performance referred to ornamentation; types of gestures physical and breath (Harvard-accent) e.g. of hand and weight; of movement of air/embouchure.

2. Arsis-Thesis; [exertion/rebound]
arsis - unaccented syllable; lifting of the foot; weak unaccented part of musical measure;
thesis - act of placing, laying down; downbeat of the foot; accented part of the musical measure;
but in Poetry, the definitions act differently:
thesis - lowering of the voice; act of placing lighter unstressed shorter part of a poetic foot in Accentual verse;
arsis - act of placing heavier stressed shorter part of a poetic foot in Accentual verse.
(This difference is noteworthy, especially in relation to discussion of energy, dynamics and effort. Is Force exertion against gravity or giving in to gravity?)

3, Developed ways to mark Accent: Ann Guest LOD concepts; par, above and below, accent (show examples)

4. Accent is defined differently by different Music Theorists. The following is a sampling of definitions from “Rhythm and Meter, A Glossary of Terms” (

a. Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard Meyer (1960) define accent as "a stimuli (in a series of stimuli) which is marked for consciousness in some way."

b. Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff (1983) define three kinds of accent, a) metrical, which denotes a beat (a time point) that is relatively strong in its metrical context, b) phenomenal, a surface emphasis or stress given to a moment in the musical flow, and c) structural, denoting an accent caused by melodic/harmonic points of gravity in a phrase or section, especially a cadence.

c. Wallace Berry (1976) defines accent as a combination of various musical qualities -- strong as opposed to weak, high as opposed to low, etc. Accent is a metrical stress created by any of these qualities singly or in combination.

d. William E. Benjamin (1984) discusses three types of accent in his article ‘A Theory of Musical Meter.’ These accents are an accent of climax, an accent of image shift, and an accent of discontinuity.

(Note that the contextual function of Accent is integral to the definition of Accent.)

Additive and Divisive Metric Schemes

Metrical schemes can be thought of as being constructed by two regulating principles:

1. Division of a unit; or
2. Sequential Addition of units.

Curt Sachs, in his book Rhythm and Tempo (p.24), notes that Western musicians have measured time and tempo by normal walking STRIDES, an actual unit of motion. By this DIVISIVE conception, a series of beats equal distance apart is organized in patterns of 2 - e.g. 2/4. A method of Choral conducting in Britain, still used today by conductors of the Kings College Choir, is the two-part up/down or down/up arm motion marking the TACTUS, or beat. There is disagreement on whether the practice was up/down or down/up, more importantly, neither motion was emphasized, only the two parts of the beat (Sachs, p.217). DIVISION applied further to the rhythm of movement, yields preparation-exertion-recuperation from a unit of motion. A simple measuring of tension and relaxation leads to a notion of Divisive metrical measurement.

Another metrical concept is that of English Poetic Meter, with stress and unstressed syllables. Here, a UNIT is a FOOT. Lines, or phrases, consist of ADDITION of Metrical feet - e.g. monometer, hexameter.
2-syllable feet: Iambic, Trochaic, Spondaic
3-syllable feet: Anapestic, Dactylic
An excerpt from Tennyson -"he watches from his mountain walls" is an example of iambic meter: 2 feet (short -long). Another meter of 2 feet is the trochee, the root of its meaning derived from motion: running; potter's wheel; run race; run quickly (long-short): "Tell me not in mournful numbers". Sequenced combinations of feet create Meter, but a combination may not always contain purely one type of Foot.
There may be varying Meters within a line of poetry:

– While this line is written primarily in dactylic hexameter - a trochee replaces the last dactyl (from Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.)

Once again, it may not be possible to determine a singular Meter in a work.

Application to Laban Effort Phrase

Additive Process is found also in Laban Effort Phrasing. Effort factors combine into states and drives, viewed in sequence create Effort Phrases. Vera Maletic has outlined how Accent works to form basic types of Effort phrases (e.g.) Impactive, with the accent towards the end, or an Accent induced Impulsive phrase. But Accent is not inherently present in an isolated Effort configuration such as Punch (strong, quick, direct), instead, dominance of particular elements, factors, states or drives become apparent when seen in Relation to one another. The MANNER by which they shift between them is noteworthy for understanding Effort Phrase. [e.g. the work of Warren Lamb or Marion North].

How is Accent different between Phrase and Meter? ACCENT is identified in phrasing, but in relation to the formation of an expressive entity. At the start, or middle or end as a method of codifying meaning and intention. Accent defines metrical Occurrence, a regular recurrence of similar or varied pattern. If viewed in this way, the difference, I believe, is that phrase relates to the formation of an expressive entity, with a beginning-middle-end; a Progression forming a narrative. Where the Accent comes, beg-mid-end, is a method form codifying Phrase type. A Phrase has its own meaning, a metaphor.

METER, by distinction, MEASURES. It does not inherently express.

What is the difference, then, between Meter and Phrasing?

Phrasing is imbedded in style and performance practice, nuanced through the personality of the performer (Lamb). METER, as I propose here, is based on the context of ACTION, of PERFORMANCE, and is determined by the OBSERVER. Meter is the result of EXPRESSION; not the maker of expression.

Summary Statement

Phrasing is the grouping of units, not the measurement of those units.

Metric Beginnings: Meter as Relationship

Mensural notation

A method of metric measurement dating back to latter 13th century, Franco of Cologne (Harvard Dictionary of Music, p. 544) made use of three main note values: long, breve and semibreve and through a system of sequential juxtapositions called Ligatures. The relationship between any two adjacent note values can either be duple or triple.

An Italian system takes the breve as a starting point and divides it at three successive levels - either by two or by three.

The term ‘Perfect’ refers to measuring of three and ‘Imperfect’ to that of two.


In the early 1990's, Hafez Modirzadeh introduced a concept called METRICODE. Distinct from traditional western meter, Metricodes define Relationships of rhythmic activity to Timeline pulse. Metricode types are Even, Odd, or Random.
Even: in direct relation to the pulse, either by 2 or 3
Odd: in a relation crossing the pulse, such s 3 over 2
Random: no discernable pattern; stream of ever changing patterns

What these three concepts have in common is a main value of determining measurement and activity measured in relationship to this main value: 2 and 3; long-short; even-odd-random.

Toward KineMeter

In 2002, I wrote a 7-minute composition called ARCADE. Its purpose is to reveal the essence of movement through actual performance. In it, each musician is directed to sonically interpret composed Effort Phrases. Each performer is no longer hidden behind stylistic trappings, she reveals herself through the act of performance. The interplay of the three musicians creates a particular set of relationships.

The timeline is mechanized through sequencing Effort symbols on a monitor - as it is in an Arcade game.

EXAMPLE 6 (VIDEO) - performance excerpt from “ARCADE”

The piece, as you can see, has a nebulous ongoing quality, like that of a gaming ARCADE. In composing this piece, I focused on Phrasing, that of a beginning, a middle and an end to each phrase. While the longer Phrases formed meaning, as in those of Arcade-like movements, the "Micro-structures" of effort combinations, and the transitions between them suggested to me something besides the longer phrasal components. On a micro level, I consider that on the level of Impulse - that hard to define nexus of Intention and Action - the resulting gestural sequences may in fact be more of a METRICAL construct than a PHRASAL one.


While Meter may be prescribed, it doesn't ultimately form itself unless in performance. This tension between fixity and fluidness determines Meter.


I propose the possibility of Meter – not limited to any one parameter of Body-Space-Energy-Sound; a Meter measured not in relation to Pulse, but in relation to Impulse - a KINEMETER more appropriately designed for Movement Observation:

Intention : Movement : Sound

Does KineMeter satisfy my premises on Meter presented earlier?
Meter in the Context of Observation

  • Meter is present in the rhythm of movement

  • It is dependent upon performance

  • Meter measures within the fluidness of rhythm

  • Meter is formed by regular recurrence

  • It is determined by the observer
KineMeter exists through movement. Each premise stated above is dependent upon performance or movement itself.

Is KineMeter efficable?

If KineMeter is to be useful, in theory it would need:

  • a Single concept defining relationship between regular recurrence of activities

  • to Measure quality and/or quantity

  • distinguishing Types

  • a Method of notation

  • to Incorporate formative Accent
In addition, it would need to account for:

  • timeline/pulse

  • recurrence of pattern

  • notation with barlines

  • organization of structural components

  • distinguishing Types of metrical structure

  • presence of formative Accent

  • calibration/denominator

Discussion of Elements

Is the SOUND the calibrative function? Every time we hear a sound, there is a metrical occurrence. If so, what is measured: the number of sounds, the quality of those sounds, how is that useful to understanding form?

We could have two Metrical Types:
1. Intention : Action
2. Intention : Action : Sound
EXAMPLE 7 (VIDEO) – female Suona player from Shanghai Conservatory
While it is mildly interesting, I don’t think this simple inventory of sound or no sound reveals anything about the form itself or the underlying components leading to the formation of this performance.

Is there a calibrative function working in conjunction with ‘Intention – Action – Sound’? If so, does it function as a denominator:

Calibrative Function

or is it additive:
INTENTION:ACTION:SOUND + Calibrative Function

or even exponential:
(INTENTION:ACTION:SOUND)Calibrative Function

Is it possible the Calibrative function would be: IMPULSE?

The distinction between INTENTION and IMPULSE is important here. We have unending Impulses, which may or may not lead to Action; INTENTION implies a level of consciousness, such as that found in performance. It too, may or may not lead to Action, but this distinction between conscious and sub-conscious movement is an important aspect of Observation.

Perhaps Impulse and Intention are interchangeable as calibrators; the observer determining which metrical device is more useful to the task.

In my opinion, for this construct to be useful, there is the following Metrical necessity to be determined:
Relationship between a "denominator", a determined calibrative value, and other measured components.


There is much to be explored for KineMeter to be useful in movement observation. Three main elements in the definition of Meter have been satisfied, but other elements remain to be reconciled:


  • Measuring device

  • Meaning not inherent in structure

  • Quality and Quantity

  • Minus

  • How is Impulse defined?

  • Notation mechanism?

  • Accent - inherent or comparative?
We know that Movement Observation entails a myriad of parameters. I conclude with three questions, the answers are, I believe, crucial to the development of Movement Observation:
1. Can Awareness of metrical presence aid the observation process?
2. Can a Meter reveal an underlying structure not exposed by other means?
3. Would a Metric construct designed to meet the needs of movement observation be a useful addition to the tools of the observer?
Selected Resources

Modirzadeh, Hafez. Chromodality and the cross-cultural exchange of material structure. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1992.

1996. The JVC Smithsonian Folkways video anthology of music and dance of Africa. [S.l.]: Victor Company of Japan ; distributed by Multicultural Media.

1996. The JVC Smithsonian Folkways video anthology of music and dance of Europe. [S.l.] Barre, VT: JVC Victor Company of Japan ; Distributed by Multicultural Media.

1995. The JVC/Smithsonian Folkways video anthology of music and dance of the Americas. [S.l.] Montpelier, VT: JVC Victor Company of Japan ; Distributed by Multicultural Media.

1990. The JVC video anthology of world music and dance Southeast Asia. JVC video anthology of world music and dance ; v. 6-10. [Tokyo] Cambridge, Mass.: JVC Victor Company of Japan ; Rounder Records [distributor].

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