Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dancing to the Rhythm of a Different Drummer, or Why I like music in odd time signatures

Part of the fun of Balkan dance is learning the rhythms. People who are accustomed to "western" music often find that Balkan dancing and the assymetrical rhythms take a little getting used to.

Many years ago, I took a band class in school. Nearly all the music was in common time signatures, such as 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, and the occasional waltz (in 3/4 time). I found the waltz intriguing because it has an odd number of beats in each measure. When I first heard a rachenitsa from Bulgaria, I was totally smitten, by both the sound and the rhythm. It was beautiful and different!

In the Balkans, musicians like pieces with odd meters, such as 7/8 and 11/16, although in the villages, they played by ear, and sheet music to them was a foreign concept. They didn't let little things like quick-slow beats concern them, and the dancers had a lot of room for improvisation. If you're into music theory you may find this link of interest.


One of my favorite dances is the kopanitsa, popular in Bulgaria and Macedonia. It has 11 beats to the measure. It's one of those rhythms that's a little tricky to internalize. The accent is on the 4th beat.

I have internalized the kopanitsa to the point that at a Bulgarian event I went to last year, no one got up to lead the dance. Whatever possessed me at the time commanded me to lead, and I did. Before I knew it I had about 50 people dancing in a line behind me, many of them exchange students from Bulgaria. The song lasted about 10 minutes, and I was exhausted when the music ended. This is the poem I wrote about the experience:


Dances often cross borders. Here are two dances from Serbia in 7/8 time which look and sound like Bulgarian rachenitsa. There are two versions of 7/8 rhythm: the rachenitsa is "apple apple galloping."

The drummer is amazing, he's playing and dancing at the same time. How many people can do that?

For more on the rachenitsa (the national dance of Bulgaria), read:


Here is the other version of 7/8 rhythm, which makes for a completely different dance, the Lesnoto or Pravoto. This dance is from Macedonia. The beat is "galloping apple apple."

One of the first dances I learned many years ago was this lively Serbian number, Niska Banja, which is in 9/8. (This time signature is also used in the Bulgarian dance Daichovo Horo).

Niska Banja is a very catchy drinking song. This link will take you to the lyrics, and an English translation, so you can sing along :)


This is a Daichovo, also a 9/8 dance, (quick-quick-quick-slow). Although the first beat has the accent, the fourth is the longest.

Since music is related to math, and since many people who take up Balkan music and dance are often math and physics people, here is an unusual take on that subject:


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  1. You are right, music IS mathematical. I wish I had noticed while 'studying' math in 'high-school'. I would loved to have studied music, but I did have the privilege of taking ballet for a few years. I loved it and sometimes refused to get out of my ballet gear! Hey, I was only a nipper! :-)

  2. Math was not my favorite subject, although I did enjoy music, and I did well in geometry because it involved shapes and reasoning. I am a visual and kinesthetic person, I learn by watching and doing.

    Maybe the teaching of music together with math would make math easier to understand.

  3. Absolutely...I love the comment that music helps anything to go throe...like the air and the water,just makes it unstuck,beside it is such a fun and pleasure,for the hall body and the spirit.I just want to encourage the one that didn't have a chance to learn academically ,or school...The GREAT NEWS for Bulgarians and specifically long time ago ,were this so complicated looking music was connected to the ancient Trakia,the people used so much of their HEARTS and it was very improvisational.Than little by little got in to some frames,simply because it was so incredible and people wanted to be able to remember it and repeat it .Other wise you know how improvisation goes,ones and is gone.SO THANK GOD to be in the books now ,so we can finally open our Hearts and see the MAGIC in this Universal Spirited Music.I doubt it that someone will not get addicted after some time watching this people having so mush joy,BUT THE MUSIC..my GOD!!!

  4. Maica, thank you for commenting, and I have to admit Bulgarian folk music is very addicting. I call it "my drug of choice." What makes it so beautiful is that it does indeed, come from the heart.

  5. Katley, this is an amazing post!!! Well done! I love music and 'the beat' is the fascinating part of it to me. I am not a music theorist although I understand it I have never studied music officially. I read notes very slowly and inefficiently. I play several instruments and a large variety of music entirely by ear! In many ways sheet music is stifling--the joy does not seem to be there.
    A LOT of the folk music is addictive--and so wonderful! I really like music--it's in the soul.

  6. Raymond, thank you so much for stopping by and for your lovely comment :) It is comments like yours that make my day. And I like folk music for the same reason you do, it contains the soul of a people. The reason I got into Eastern European music was that it "spoke" to me in a way no other music had (and I've listened to everything: classical, pop, jazz, metal, hip-hop, etc.) Thanks for visiting and please drop by again, I update this blog about once a week.