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Additive Meters in East European and Mediterranean Music

Count, Internalize, Enjoy!

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It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that Swing ... and the Swing is sometimes a challenge. I grew up in a world of 3/4 and 4/4, and then moved on to hornpipes, jigs and slides, but now I've developed a taste for the East European and Mediterranean 5/8 and 7/8 and 10/8, and I want to be able to know where I am at any point in the music.

Many of these rhythms are known as additive meters. Additive meters are more easily understood if you think in terms of adding rhythm units together and giving emphasis to the first beat in each unit. Becuase of the possible ways smaller units can be added, time signatures do not give enough information. For instance, a song whose Western time signature is written 5/8 might be played as 2-3 (Dum dum Dum dum dum) OR it might be a 3-2 (Dum dum dum Dum dum). If you do not have an intuitive grasp of the additive meters, understanding these pieces so that you can play or dance to them means listening to them / reading the scores for them, parsing out the rhythm units, and adding them up into measures and phrases.

Counting and Diagramming

Handouts from an Eva Czernik workshop in the 1990s did not include descriptions of individual rhythms. Her advice was to figure out how long each measure was, then use your foot as a mechanical metronome, tapping all beats. Then organize what you are hearing into sets of 2s and 3s and overlay them on top of the metronome by SAYING the beats that you want to emphasize. How you organize the sets of 2s and 3s is up to the feeling of the music.

1 2 3 4 5 | 1 2 3 4 5 | 1 2 3 4 5 |
1 . 3 4+5 | 1 . 3 4+5 | 1 . 3 4+5 |

Some notes from a 1990s zill workshop by Travis Jarrell (which I took long before I had any zills, but for some reason I kept the notes) include the suggestion that, in addition to identifying and working on specific rhythms for peformance, the musician/dancer should do mind exercises that experiment with rhythm structures. The idea was to develop comfort with alternate rhythm phrasing within the measure structure. She suggested overlaying different combinations of 2s and 3s on the structure so that you get used to hearing and playing them.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 |1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 |1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 |
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2
1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3
1 2 3 1 2 1 2 3

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 |
1+2+1+2+1+2 1 2 3
1+2 1+2 1+2 1+2 1
1+2+1 2 1 2 1 2 3

Balkan Fiddling at gives the same advice. "The key to getting on top of these rhythms is to break them down into groups of 2 and 3 beats. A 7/8 tune, for example, is usually counted 123,12,12 (which you could also write as 3,2,2). It could also be 12,12,123, depending on how the melody is phrased. Fortunately most tunes keep a single rhythmic pattern, though some might change unexpectedly. Traditional musicians tend to think of these beats as combinations of quick (12) and slow (123) beats. The bad news is that this sometimes means the rhythm as actually played may not actually fall into any of the neat and exact patterns demanded by classically trained musicians."

Internalizing the Swing

After you are able to count the beats, you will want to internalize them and play them naturally, to force yourself out of your head and into that lovely kinetic flywheel state. If you can find recordings of the music that you can understand, that is very helpful because sometimes 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2-3 doesn't really mean 3 beats with the same duration as the notes in the 2-beat sections; it might be more a one-two one-two one-two swoosh....

As Ludmil Krumov puts it: "Because the dance melodies are usually being played in medium to very fast tempos, Bulgarian musicians do not count every beat in the meter. They think in terms of short and long pulses; short being the duple, and long being the triple meter of the compound heterometer."

Kevin Ferguson at suggests that you learn to dance to these rhythms (if possible) and that you employ mneumonics to internalize the swing. Apple is a two-beat mneumonic, galloping is a three-beat mneumonic.

An alternative: the Flamenco mneumonics of

  • tum
  • (doublet): tumty
  • (triplet): tumpity
  • (quadruplet): tumpidity
  • (sextuplet): rumpitytumpity
If you need to count very fast:
  • one
  • (doublet) one-and
  • (quadruple) one-dee-and-a

Or, as someone else said when interpreting a 5 - 5 - 7 song:
taka takita taka takita takidimi takita


A nice explanation from on diagramming the swing for a number of folk dances.

Bulgarian Odd Rhythms for Jazz Musicians at

Bulgarian Music: Rhythm, Melody, History.

Language beyond Rhythm; A South Indian hand drum artist draws a parallel between speech and rhythm and how emotion is conveyed. TEDxCooperUnion presentation.

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