8. The Stride Technique
The Craft of Musical Communication by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, ©2005
St. Lambert, in his preface to his compositions, states that the normal tempo in music is that of a man walking. The observation that anyone can make from looking at people walking is that they all walk at different tempi, and the only conclusion that one can make of this is that St. Lambert was an idiot! However, if we take what St. Lambert said seriously and attempt to discover what he observed, then something very interesting happens: we discover that he was right. That is, if you observe all people walking, they indeed walk at all different tempi, but if you observe only those people walking "who are intending to get someplace specific," they all walk at the same tempo. Large or small, young or old, the tempo is the same for anyone who is healthy, able, strong, and normally formed. The tempo they stride at to get someplace intended is exactly 116 beats per minute - for every other purpose, people walk at all different speeds.
For your ease and benefit, we found a widget at the AppleStore for a metronome called METRONOMIC offered as a free download by its maker, Jeffrey Qua, who graciously reconfigured his widget so it could be posted here on our website for your experimental convenience...as you will find below. What follows below that are some Youtube videos of examples showing people walking. What is interesting is that you can relatively easily guess about the intentions of people when their stride is not exactly 116 MM.
*Metronome app works best with Google Chrome or Safari.
What makes this so interesting is that music, like thought, always intends to get someplace specific - the end of the thought or the cadence. Even more interesting is that just as people walk to get someplace specific at 116, most people also speak with the normal accents in their speech occurring at a rate of 116 beats per minute - only when we have something specific to say. People who by temperament, by personality, by persuasion, or by habit speak either faster or slower than that speed are perceived to be intolerably dull or slow witted if they speak much slower than 116, or untrustworthy, if they speak much faster than 116. The affect of being slower is of slothfulness or of painful self-consciousness. The affect of speaking faster is that of a shyster who is always trying to fast-talk people into doing things they don't want to do.
At the same time the normal accents of our speech occur at 116 beats per minute, our moments of pause, our moments of emphasis, our phrases, the duration of silence between exchange of speakers in conversation occur at 72 beats per minute. Furthermore, if you divide 116 by 1.618... (the number needed to calculate the ratio of the "Golden" proportion) you get 72 (71.69 exactly…)!
Here are two English speakers:
...And here are several examples of different languages, in order to illustrate the universality of this phenomenon!
There are a few other tempi which work. These tempi are multiples or divisions of 116 and 72 such as 58 (one half of 116), 144 (twice 72), 96 (4 times 72 divided by 3...a 3:4 ratio), 108 (3 times 72 divided by 2...a ratio of 3:2) 87 (116 times 3 divided by 4...a 3:4 ratio), etc.
Anyone who finds these observations too incredible should prove it for themselves: take a metronome, set it at 116, and put it in front of a television to discover the truth for yourself. Set the metronome at 72 to verify the speed of emphatic moments, pauses, phrases, etc., then try setting it slightly off these tempi to see if speeds such as 118 or 74 or 114 or 70 produce the same level of coincidence.
What one can conclude from these observations is that the human brain is designed to process heard information at a precise rate of flow. The rate of flow may change depending on the significance, density, importance, intensity, or degree of urgency of the information. If the information flows at a rate faster than it can be processed and comprehended, we feel overwhelmed. If it flows at a rate slower than it can be processed and comprehended, we feel hampered, impatient, irritated, or bored by the manner of delivery.
We have proposed that the mechanism in the brain which processes flow does so on the basis of speed of flow in relation to intensity of content. If the intensity of content decreases, yet the speed of flow remains constant, the perception will be that the flow has become much slower. Hence, as intensity of content decreases, the speed of flow must increase, lest the mind become bored. Conversely, if the intensity of content increases, but the speed of flow remains the same, the mind assumes that the speed has increased, thus, the speed must decrease or the mind will soon feel overwhelmed. This is most easily understood as an inverse proportion: the more that is happening in the heard music, the slower the tempo needs to be, and conversely, the less that is happening in the heard music, the faster the tempo needs to be. Furthermore, each of these musical communication techniques, when added to a performance, will require the tempo of that performance to be ever slower, if only slightly, depending on the information intensity of the score.
Thus it is fair to criticize the way classical music is performed today, as it is overly controlled as to metrical regularity and tightness of simultaneous soundingness of parts, because, in the case of early music, musicians feel compelled to play too fast (due to the lack of interest or meaning in the delivery) or, in the case of romantic literature, too slowly, in order to include in their performances those techniques which they are accustomed to using for the purpose of "warming" up an otherwise cold sounding, mathematically accurate performance. Those techniques to which we refer are: a continuous vibrato, acceleration and deceleration of a predictable and regular sort, and predictably regular gradations of change in volume (techniques which when applied to speech produce the silliest, most ridiculous effect). In the first case, of early music, the excessive speed fills up the spaces between notes so the listener's brains won't have the opportunity to fill up those spaces with thoughts of boredom. And, in the second case, the "warming" techniques, used to take the chill off otherwise stiff, passionless performances, are distractions which the performers hope will divert the listener's attentions from their unimaginative playing.
In the example video below on the left, the tempo is actually 116 MM, but because the performers unwisely chose the wrong note value to assign to that tempo and because the rendition is excessively metrical, the affect feels perfunctory on the one hand and heavy-handedly adolescent on the other. Listen to what happens to the same piece (video below on the right) when that same 116 MM tempo is assigned to the correct note value in the recording the follows the Perlman video. The affect in the second recording is full of energy and intensity, like a breath of fresh air or stepping into a fast running Alpine stream in your bare feet.
In the subsequent video, Mr. Gould chooses the tempo 72 MM for the Aria and 116 MM for the variations that follow, but the playing is so rigidly metrical that all the naturalness is missing and the playing sounds constipated and forced. By contrast the same piece in the video that follows the Gould video, by harpsichordist Robert Hill, sounds natural and free because, though the Aria is played at the self same tempo, Hill uses so many of the communication techniques in his playing that what results is playing that is both unforced and gestural, which produces a generally far more dimensional performance.
Tempo selection in music needs to account for the changing rate of flow, which depends on the significance, density, importance, intensity, or degree of urgency of the information, as well as the affect of the piece. Failure to hit upon the right tempo will create the effect of forcing (if the tempo is slightly too slow) or racing (if it is slightly too fast). However, if these observations are dismissed altogether, then the selection of tempo is based on hope; much like buying groceries, throwing them into the oven and hoping an edible dish will emerge after a while...a kind of three stooges approach to cooking.
Application: be aware of where in a piece a value maybe played at 116 or 72 and test these tempi on listeners. These tempi should make music feel more natural to listeners. Sometimes it will be more challenging to play because the speed may be far faster than a player can handle the technique of playing. However, many composers took these tempi into account in the writing of the music and made the piece so that it would be easier to play when taken at the correct tempo...even if the tempo was significantly faster than normal.