PopMAC day 1: Prosodic (Intonation) Rhythm in Popular Music. Svetlana Chashchina #popmac

The Development of a System of Prosodic (Intonation) Rhythm in Popular Music. Svetlana Chashchina (Vyatka State University, Russia)


The notion of ‘prosodic rhythm’ was introduced in science by Russian musicologist Miron Kharlap in the 1960-80s. At that time his fundamental rhythmic conception was hardly accepted by traditional Soviet musicology, but was accepted in rhythmological researches and showed its efficiency in ethnomusicology too. In the post-perestroyka period (beginning from the end of 1990s), Kharlap’s conception of the development of rhythm in historical retrospective outlasts the true scientific Renaissance. At the same time this conception is little known abroad.

The aims of this paper are: 1) to introduce the basic position of Kharlap rhythmic conception, with the particular attention to the system of prosodic rhythm, which is well adapted to analyzing archaic musical cultures, cultures of different forms of improvisation and many contemporary genres both in academic and popular avant-guard; 2) to illustrate different ways this kind of temporal-rhythmic organization can be used various popular-music genres, focusing on free jazz, hip-hop (recitative party), new age and alternative music. The compositions of Miles Davis, Dan Gibson and Björk will be analyzed as varied instances of prosodic rhythm.

Svetlana Chashchina Was born in 1966, Kirov (Russia). She has two master’s diplomas in art criticism from Nizhniy Novgorod State Conservatory, (MA) and the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. In 2000, Svetlana defended the thesis ‘Conception of musical duration (on an example of Claude Debussy’s instrumental works)’ at the Russian Institute of Art History, St-Petersburg. Her main research interests are: 1. Twentieth-century art, particularly music, media-art, architecture; 2. Issues of reflection of time and space in human culture (chronobiological, psychological, anthropological, cultural aspects); 3. Using the synergetic paradigm in social and humanitarian sciences. She has more than 50 published papers.

[JB note with apologies to Svetlana – the slides went by very fast and I missed quite a lot of the analytical detail. I will publish a link to her full paper if/when it appears online]

Svetlana begins with a discussion of the qualitative and quantitative types of rhythmic prosody. She cites Russian folklorist Petr Sokalsky and his 1888 work on Russian folk music. Sokasky speaks of a ‘wave unit’ – an indivisible musical element. Next she cites Miron Kharlap (1913-1994), author of ‘Folk Russian music system and the problem of music’s genesis’). Both writers discuss rhythmic-syntactic parallelism as the basis of the ancient-Turkic folk epic verse. Kharlap’s approach included phase intonation as the principle, organising temporal deployment of form. He speaks of an ‘intonation foot’, noting that every foot in the folk verse ends by descending, and measure is generated by the alternation of ascents and descents. Thus, the folk measure deals primarily with pitch, rhythms being dictated by the text.

We now look at ‘irrational’ durations, and the instability of intonation feet in some cases, although they generally adhere to periods of normal breathing – 3-4 seconds – in order to be physiologically singable. Svetlana notes that breathing differs from other periodic bodily movements (walking, heartbeat etc) because it is not necessarily regular/involuntary.

We then looked at ‘before-modal’ organisation and then the idea of ‘syncretic character’. The latter creates a unity of musical organisation. Kardap’s theories are then applied to other scholarship; Svetlana also notes recent scholarship that has taken a more quantitative approach.

She provides speculation as to why these theories are so little used, and suggests possible future applications and further work. The simultaneity of unstable pitch, changing timbre and irregular duration lead to what Svetlana calls ‘a complex phenomenon of intonation’. Sound is described in two ‘models’ – ‘Sound as an atom’ and ‘Sound as a process’. The latter category notes the inherent instability of sound parameters, the former takes it to have stationary ‘points’. Finally, we hear an excerpt from Bjork’s ‘Medulla’, underlining those compositions that appear to exhibit the characteristics described in the paper.

In the questioning, Phillip Tagg notes the immense potential importance of studies of prosody, and reflects that syntactical context can drive pitch, citing the example of a train announcer ending a list of stations with a pitch dropoff. An interesting group discussion ensues regarding physiological patterns (the 3-4 seconds of vocal exhalation).

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