Make ’em Clap to This: Tricks of rhythmic displacement as found in Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin

(NB The following is related to this post – you might want to have a look if you are interested in the subject of rhythmic ‘tricks’)

Writing in the early 1930’s, composer/critic Constant Lambert takes great delight in recounting the following incident at a Ballet Russes performance:

“Diaghilev included as a symphonic interlude Mozart’s Musical joke……no one saw the joke except Diaghilev himself. His entourage took the piece with perfect gravity as an example of classicism to be admired and imitated.”

(Lambert, p98)

I’m sure he exaggerates – he was, after all, decrying Stravinsky’s brand of neoclassicism (Lambert was more an admirer of the “barbarism” of The Rite of Spring and Les Noces, and caricatures Stravinsky’s move to neo-classicism as a “spectacular sinner” having a “spectacular conversion.”

“….they (the audience) craved more sensation- very well they should have it. Cold water and sermon for them…Stravinsky in his latest works has achieved a final triumph of fashion….a fashion for boredom”

(Lambert, p88)

Mozart’s Musical joke (K.522) would better be titled as a musical parody of inept composition. It begins subtly with a nice musical phrase, only it’s three bars long- upsetting the 2 and 4 bar periodicity of the obsessively balanced classical compositional style. To an inattentive, or not particularly musically literate audience, this opening ‘joke’ could pass you by (things become more obvious by the end of the piece with its ludicrously dissonant final cadence). But, perhaps an audience of the Ballet Russes in the late 1920’s were pretty much inoculated against any perception of odd numbers of bars, or any other rhythmic shifts; Stravinsky had been doing it to them since The Firebird, and with each successive ballet, rhythm became more of an experimental feature. This came to a peak with the The Rite of Spring.

Now I don’t intend to spend too long on Rite of Spring, (especially after the hundredth anniversary last year), but it brings up a fundamental aspect of what I want to investigate: pulse, meaning here, that thing that you are most likely to tap your foot to; what you most feel as the defining expression of tempo, regardless of time signature. This does throw up a slight problem with some music- for instance jazz where the culturally aware ‘hip’ feel is to tap/snap on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ of a four crotchet bar measure, especially when it’s faster, since tapping your foot on all four beats at a tempo of 250+ crotchets per minute becomes too frenetic. Here Duke Ellington shows his followers how to do it:

Another example where defining pulse becomes a little complex: I have it on good authority that Balkan primary school children happily clap (while singing) on the 1 2, 1 2, 1 2 3 of a fast tempo 7/8, where again the eighth note quaver pulse is too fast to be a comfortable beat marker. It seems like the uneven accenting is the pulse.

What makes Stravinsky interesting to me is that his beat/pulse is often so clear; for much of his output, you can easily tap your foot, notwithstanding that you’ll might find that you have to recalibrate that pulse, because it’s just been disrupted by a smaller subdivision of time (e.g. during very clear 2/4 pulse, a sudden 3/8 bar turns the beat upside down-more on that soon).

This aspect of Stravinsky’s music generally, and especially with Rite, upset many critics and especially Theodor Adorno. What bothered them was rhythm divorced from melodic and harmonic movement, as described by Lambert:

“Debussy gives us harmony for its own sake, and Stravinsky gives us rhythm for its own sake….”

 (Lambert p 53)


Lambert retains some admiration for all this as long as it is “barbaric” (“barbaric music for the super civilised” in fact).  Adorno has stronger words:

“Rhythmic structure, is to be sure, blatantly prominent, but this is achieved at the expense of all other aspects of rhythmic organisation…Rhythm is underscored, but split off from musical content. This results not in more but rather in less rhythm…”

(Adorno, p54)

Augurs of Spring:

This is the one that really annoyed Adorno, where all that “blatantly prominent” rhythmic structure unleashes itself after the long impressionistic opening. Stravinsky writes it in 2/4:

Example 1 Augers of spring excerpt.
Example 1 Augers of spring excerpt (click to enlarge).
Firstly, of course there is THAT chord: basses playing a double stop of E and B at the root of an E major chord, (all spelled as Fb major) and above it an Eb7 chord. (Just putting in my two cents, I have to say that when you hear it in concert or on a good sound system the Fb/E root is pretty strong so if I rearrange and respell the chord I get: E G# B C# D# G natural and A#-just ignoring the G natural for a moment we have an E major 7, with a sharp 11 and the 13th- a pretty common extension, and one in which all the notes fall within the E lydian mode- so only the G natural makes the real dissonance of minor third against major third).The real point is that the Augurs chord makes a sonic noise of massive weight that is perfect for the rhythm that it is expressing. Therefore again going back to Lambert in 1933, I have to disagree with him when he says that the essential effect could be obtained equally well by a single drum. Just because it’s a percussive part doesn’t mean that it would be good for percussion instrument to play it, (easy to say with hindsight that is informed by say funk or rock guitar parts, where harmonic and/or timbral choices are made at the service of producing the right sonics for a given groove).In his famous essay on Rite, (Stravinsky Demeure), Pierre Boulez’s typical approach with rhythm is to identify the rhythmic irregularities and metric shifts, but ignore the existence of steady meters against which they are often set. In illustrating and rejecting this approach, Pieter Van den Toorn took it even further, re-barring Augurs according to the accents:
Example2 Augers of spring re-barred by Van den Toorn (click to enlarge)
Example2 Augers of spring re-barred by Van den Toorn (click to enlarge)

In doing this Van den Toorn sought to differentiate between what he called conservative and radical perception of rhythm. This re-barring brings out the radical listening of Boulez (and Adorno)- any rhythmic change/disruption is delineated and adjusted to, whereas the conservative seeks to maintain the pulse as long as possible. Probably to most of us, certainly to me, it’s obvious: Augurs is a groove, therefore defining me as a conservative (i.e. I keep the pulse going –not really liking conservative attached to my name, I prefer to call it pulse preserving.

Consider Augurs from the ‘modern’ listener’s point of view. For nearly three and a half minutes a constant clear crotchet pulse is maintained (mainly in 2/4, apart from a few bars of 3/4 near the end which do nothing to upset the pulse) all the famous accents are completely in the comfort zone of any modern jazz/rock/funk listener – in the words of Eric B and Rakim “(they)….can clap to this.” And let’s face it, that is often not the case with twentieth century classical music. So the score of Augurs is actually notated in a way that conserves the pulse.

Just as a comparison, here is a couple of bars of rhythm that like to think would have pleased Stravinsky:

Example 3L I've Got the Feeling (Click to enlarge)
Example 3L I’ve Got the Feeling (Click to enlarge)
This is actually a composite of the drums and horn section hits from the main groove of James Brown’s ‘I’ve Got the Feelin’, (which I used in my last post). The thing here is that in much soul, rock and funk, we expect snare drums to hit on, and clearly accent ‘2’ and ‘4’. In the first bar those expected accents have been shifted back by a quaver/eighth note, although in the next bar the ‘2’ is somewhat re established. The strength of snare plus horns can really throw the inattentive listener, but if you are in the groove then, like Augurs it can be pretty stimulating. Ive got the feelin’ is a classic from the Brown canon, and I quoted it in the last post also- that’s because it is notable within James Brown’s music and funk in general. Of course this level of syncopation is not unusual, but for it to be so powerfully accented is less common than might be expected. A lot of funk has pretty straightforward fundamental rhythmic parts (I’ll talk more about that in post that will be published in a couple of weeks).

(Stravinsky would probably not have left it there-no doubt it would have been subjected to some further disruption or distortion)

For fun I did a ‘Van den Toorn‘ on this and re barred it:

Example 4 - I've Got the Feeling re-barred (click to enlarge)
Example 4 – I’ve Got the Feeling re-barred (click to enlarge)

What was the point of that?Firstly, just to show that so much of the music I (and probably you) listen to is full of the kind of “rhythm for its own sake” that upset Adorno, and caused Boulez (at least in 1953) to stop tapping his foot and readjust his rhythmic bearings. Secondly, that if you listen to music like James Brown you are probably a ‘pulse conserving’ listener.  Now of course this example is only a two bar phrase, and so constantly repeats, allowing the listener to quickly ‘learn’ where everything is. But by the very strength of the disruptive elements, somehow the main pulse is reinforced in a subtle and satisfying way- to have banged away hard on all four beats would have been (as Ellington said) too aggressive. The groove becomes, as Phil Tagg says, a ‘place to be’; which is very much how I experience the repeating chord and ‘riffs’ (if I can use that term) of the Augurs of spring.The main point is, that when at his most personally idiomatic, what Stravinsky gives us, rhythmically, is very clear pulse or tactus, which makes all the displacement, subdivision and upsetting of the beat all the more obvious to the listener.We must also remember that Rite is not really representative of most of Stravinsky’s output. Although it has a rhythmic landscape he was to repeatedly use again, the overall hugeness- that enormous orchestra, the complex vertical harmonies-these were to be largely forgone by him for most of his career; his subsequent output more characterised by an acerbic dryness and wit, and an intentional efficiency in his use of melody, which is usually subjected to his rhythmic demands. In fact the pieces I really want to look at, Histoire du soldat and Three pieces for string quartet make these rhythmic tricks far more obvious because of the clarity of the setting – again to quote Lambert in 1933, as he unfavourably compared Histoire to Les Noces and Rite of spring.

“The constant rhythmic changes, which had some logic when applied to the asymmetrical line of the Russian folk song, acquire a new perversity when applied to the left-right-left and one two three hop of the wooden soldier’s march and the baby’s polka.”

(Lambert p 66)

“…..reiterated notes are a melodic-rhythmic stutter, characteristic of my speech…… a lifelong affliction in fact”

(Stravinsky in conversation: Stravinsky and Craft 1966, p58)

Let’s take that “perversity” as a positive and look at some of Stravinsky’s “stuttering.”

Pulse/tactus preserving polymeter:

One way of displacing something in music is by giving different elements different meters.  In my last post I used this as an example of polyrhythm:

Example 5 (click to enlarge)
Example 5 (click to enlarge)

That example doesn’t show the real rhythm, just a reduction of it to the pulse. This might be more accurately called bar preserving polymeter, the 6 and the 4 both occupying the same space. This can then be differentiated from pulse preserving polymeter (more commonly called tactus preserving polymeter), where the pulse is the same, it’s just that different metric units coexist, as in this case:

Example 6 - Kashmir (click to enlarge)
Example 6 – Kashmir (click to enlarge)

Which is Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir: guitar and bass playing a 3/4 riff at the same time as 4/4 drums- the vocals also follow the 3/4 riff. When listening to it as a teenager, this was the first time I was ever aware such a thing existed. The 3/4 division is 4 bars long i.e. 12 beats, which means that it synchronises up to 3 bars of the 4/4 drums. They let the pattern run for 18 bars of 4/4 or 24 bars of 3/4 before the bridge. The vocals also follow the 3/4 riffs, so giving a melodic harmonic periodicity that is at odds with the drum part. (This all assumes that the listener is fully indoctrinated in the musical ‘meaning’ of a standard kick snare pattern of rock drumming).

Such ‘going out of sync’ is currently common in many forms of modern metal (Meshuggah), but in 1980, the Cars’ ‘Touch and Go’ brought polymeter to no 37 in the US charts. Here in the verses, we have 5/4 drums and bass but 4/4 vocals and harmonic movement:

My own experience of polymeter (outside of listening to led Zeppelin) came about in Groove Collective rehearsals as a kind of in-house musical joke; we had tension between elements in the band between jazz-fusion tendencies to play in non duple time signatures, and the requirements of danceable funk to stay in 4/4 – the compromise was similar to Led Zeppelin: keep the drums in 4/4 and let the riff (eleven beats long) go out of sync:


Three pieces for string quartet:

Stravinsky does pulse preserving polymeter quite early, in what I think is one of his most radical works- Three pieces for string quartet 1914. The trick here is a 7/4 rhythmic figure, written as a bar of 3/4 and two bars of 2/4 (Example 7) and a melody that is 23 crotchets long (Example 8):

Example 7 - Cello Example (click to enlarge)
Example 7 – Cello Example (click to enlarge)


Example 9 - Three Pieces for Violin
Example 8 (click to enlarge)
Simple arithmetic means that for the full cycle to work through and for the two sets of bar lines to meet up again in the way they do with Led Zeppelin, it would need seven repetitions of the melody or twenty three repetitions of the rhythmic figure. In fact, ignoring the seven beats of drone that top and tail the piece, in 42 bars of music, the rhythmic figure repeats fully fourteen times without variation- making the equivalent of fourteen bars of 7/4.



Therefore, the melody goes through only four times and then carries on for another six beats with a little melodic (not rhythmic) change to close:

Example 8 (click to enlarge)

Example 9 (click to enlarge)

So Stravinsky, possibly for reasons of brevity doesn’t run the experiment all the way through, but cuts it short. Needles to say the sense of crotchet down beat is clear and strong, and that is what so effectively throws up the variations that occur from the polymetric nature of the melody. Note the sans ralentir instruction- just to make sure the violinist doesn’t expressively slow down at the end; again I can tap my foot to this.There is another component: that scratchy descending line in the second violin that is also displaced. This line seems to follow its own rules- could it be artistic decision making, possibly thrown in at intuitively opportune moments, to counterpoint the mechanical ‘set in motion’ nature of the other elements? It certainly feels like that to me, so in this case, rhythmic displacement as an expression of freedom, rather than pre set arithmetical devices.
I will follow up on this subject with another post in a couple of weeks!


Adorno, Theodor (1973). Philosophy of modern music, New York, Seabury press.

Boulez, Pierre (1991) Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, Oxford, Clarendon press.

Lambert, Constant (1933). Music Ho, A study of music in decline, London, Faber and Faber.

Stravinsky, Igor, Craft, Robert. Conversations with Stravinsky (1980). Berkeley, University of California press.

Van den Toorn, Pieter (1987). Stravisnky and the Rite of Spring. Oxford, Oxford University press.

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My PhD was entirely devoted to the process of composing music. Before academia I spent eleven years (from 1990) as a full time musician based in New York, working as both as a session player, and as the musical director of The Groove Collective, a band that combined Jazz, Latin, and Funk forms. This led to six albums and performances around the world including Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Roskilde Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater Colorado, and Filmore West. I have also performed in orchestras, and as a solo flutist, including a broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

5 thoughts on “Make ’em Clap to This: Tricks of rhythmic displacement as found in Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin”

  1. Hello

    This is a fascinating post, and if it were within the MOOC I would be among those asking for more information about a whole range of material including full indoctrination in the ‘meaning’ of a standard kick snare pattern of rock drumming.

    I have only one Adorno text, and as usual, I have bad luck in that it isn’t the one cited.

    However, it might be interesting to trace in his thinking ideas about art and freedom and to link these to the thoughts expressed here that a displaced rhythm somehow both expresses freedom and subtly reinforces the more conventional rhythm from which it is displaced?

    More prosaically the ideas that a piece can be in more than one key and (to put it at a very simple level) can have more than one time signature ‘at the same time’ is a revelation to me, while also being in a sense so ‘obvious’ that I feel foolish for not having thought about it before!

    Here is a link to a video of the Rite of Spring: even the costumes are a matter of ‘art history’! Indeed, I think that it was in that context where I first heard of the ballet!


    I think I must have seen this relatively recently on TV, perhaps during the anniversary celebrations.

    It goes without saying that I don’t much like the ending and nor does Mrs Ball!

    1. John, quoting you: “a displaced rhythm somehow both expresses freedom and subtly reinforces the more conventional rhythm from which it is displaced?”
      puts it perfectly–but for Adorno, Stravinsky’s rhythms were too independent, not part of a harmonic flow-hence his hatred (not too strong a word) of jazz.
      The Marinsky version is as close as anyone can get to the original costumes and choreography- they spent ages researching and interviewing the few dancers left who had performed in the original etc..
      My wife is a ballet dancer and taught some sections of that choreography to an Edinburgh University class who were studying ‘Rite’… it’s almost all completely different normal ballet movement, and she didn’t really like it.
      When you say you didn’t like the ending do you mean of the whole ballet i.e. human sacrifice etc.

  2. Richard

    Thank you for your reply. Yes, the dislike was not just for the theme of human sacrifice but also for the fact of it being a young female involved as we tend to read these as (potential) examples of misogyny – a controversial habit perhaps, but I am certain, an approach which will have its own legitimacy within the modern walls of musical academe. Such approaches are now accepted as legitimate within cultural studies and literary theory (which is where I first encountered the work of Adorno).

    You won’t need me to tell you that approaches to music have often been political as for example in the US left’s embracing of black music, which is still often seen in terms of a protest against an unjust society (as no doubt it was and still often is).

    But of course Adorno’s take on the ‘culture industry’ was quite different, and almost strikes one as quaint nowadays (?).

    Thank you for the additional information on Adorno’s approach to rhythm.

    I should add that in other respects the ballet and the costumes as represented by the choreography and dress in the reconstruction version of the play do have a certain strange charm (not quite the word), suggesting that we are as you put it ‘innoculated’ against such deviations from traditional practices.

    I found a video of Page playing this song and explaining how he came up with it in some sort of Master Class;_ylt=A2KLqIjwKilUfHsAe7h2BQx.;_ylu=X3oDMTByZWc0dGJtBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQDBGdwb3MDMQ–?p=page+masterclass+kashmir&vid=ef1f53eba055c09995c2b58045aa8a52&l=3%3A50&

    Here is a link in case you have not seen it and would like to.

    I gave up buying Led Zep after the first two albums, which we still have on vinyl and scratch free as we were the sort who took care of the records we spent out Saturday job money on. And I am uncomfortable about the way they used derivative material without necessarily crediting its origin. But they are still stunning albums to listen to.

    I was disappointed that he did not mention the time signature aspect of it. I think he had some sort of musical education as a young child (evidence a youthful appearance he put in on some children’s TV programme) so maybe this ‘omission’ was deliberate on his part.

    I have been listening to how different people drum for a four four beat and watching some simple instructional videos telling people how to use snare drums and kick drums and so on with each beat of the bar.

    I have always found ‘unusual’ time signatures difficult to hear and label, so guidance and examples like yours may help me learn here.

    As an example of when I have failed, I tried to follow what was being said about the rhythms in Flamenco, which is a familiar musical style but not one which we have much of a theoretical handle on. Not easy to “clap along to” unless you know the background rhythms, though clapping (palmas) is integral to the music! Just when you think you’ve got the ‘pulse’ it vanishes!

    Thank you again for an interesting post!

  3. I have been following up Tagg on the Scotch Snap (just been on holiday in Skye) and found this article.

    I’m not familiar with Tagg’s musical style, but IMHO he is a writer of enjoyable and expressive prose, albeit of prose which does not always conform with ‘conservative’ ideas about the tone and style of an academic paper. I imagine that he gets up a lot of people’s noses and is a good choice of speaker if you want a lively debate.

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