Duple Meter

by Mark Dvorak

The Sanskrit word prana means “breath” or “vital energy.” Yama is to extend or draw out, and not restrain. In yoga, pranayama means “extension of the prana or breath,” or “extension of the life force.” The practice of yoga begins with an awareness of one’s breathing.

In a way, when we make music on stringed instruments, our guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and stand-up basses are all breathing together, and a long time ago a name was given to this breathing. It was called duple meter.

Duple is Latin and means “two.” Meter is from a Greek word meaning “measure.” So duple meter means we measure our musical breathing in twos. And believe it or not, there are a lot of ways to count to two.

Children on the playground teeter-totter in duple meter. Your crabby boss storms across the office in angry duple meter. We run to the bathroom in urgent duple meter. Watching people walk or at play, you may imagine the unheard music in their movement.

The prana in playing music is the care and intention with which an instrumentalist sends his or her strings into vibration. The yama then, is resonance.

The strong beat in duple meter is the first beat. The other one is the back beat. Bass notes fall to the first beat, strums and brushes to the back beat.

Here’s a neat game to try the next time you gather with friends to play. It’s a good warm up exercise. After everybody is tuned up, have a single guitarist set a tempo. Make it on a D chord and make it a person in your group who is comfortable going it alone. The guitarist sounds the fourth string on the strong beat, and strums across the strings on the back beat. On the next strong beat, he or she sounds the fifth string followed again by a strum.

Have another guitarist fall into time with the first. Take a minute to listen to the two instrumentalists dance together on a D chord. If there is one, have a bass player jump in.

Don’t change chords yet, just stay with D. There are no words so you won’t need sheets or anything. Your eyes are free to help manage your strumming, and you can focus attention on the simple sound in the room. Look at each other.

Next, have a fiddle player or two, or three, stroke their strings in short bursts on the back beat, where the guitarists are strumming. Fiddle players, try doing it more loudly, then more softly. Guitarists, strive for a full-sounding bass note, and a quieter, more compact strum. The ever-present bass should also blend.

Then come the mandolins, banjos, harmonicas, ukuleles and what-all else. The role of these instruments in our Duple String Symphony in D, is to find each other on that back beat and blend. The strong beat is given authority by the bass and guitars, the back beat becomes a bubbling stew of chunking, percussive and resonant strings.

If every player in the circle can hear every instrument, then you’re all breathing together in a musical way. Try bringing the collective volume down to a whisper and see what happens next.


from “The Quarter Notes,” the newsletter of the Plank Road Folk Music Society, Downers Grove IL. www.plankroad.org.

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