Baroque Rhythms

Certain specific conventional rhythmic alteration took shape within an old and general traditional rhythmic flexibility. Baroque performers were expected to improve the expressiveness of music while adopting to their own personal taste.

Before and during the Baroque period, general liberty to modify rhythm were mainly related to pairing notes into units of a beat. This led to 3 problems:

Problem 1

A group of two notes may be paired in a variety of unequal rhythm which gave rise to an inequality problem.

Problem 2

Groups of two notes, unequally notated by dotting, could be paired in a variety of unequal rhythms which gave rise to a dotting problem.

Problem 3

Groups of two notes either equally or unequally notated by dotting against triples. This gave rise to a problem in triplets.

A general flexibility of rhythm is desirable in any Baroque music. The modification of rhythm can add to the vitality or the elegance of the interpretation when used with good judgement and good imagination judiciously.

If applied carelessly it can do more harm than good. When there is too much calculation it can be harmful. A little modification of rhythm is better than too much.


Inequality is the unequal performance of notes notated equally. Inequality instruction survived from before, during and after the Baroque era and are of all nationalities.

‘The practice of them is not very certain, some use them in one way, some in another.’

Étiénne Loulié, leading French Authority on Inequality.

The method to be observed in playing quarter notes is to linger on the first, to hurry on the second, to linger again to the third, and to hurry on the fourth etc.

Francois Couperin wrote ‘we write otherwise than we perform…the Italian on the contrary write their music in the true value which they have conceived for it. For example, we dot several eight notes in succession by step, and yet the we notate them equal.’

The eight notes must be performed equally, whereas sixteenth note are made unequal in Italian time for 2/4 and 2/8 time.

12/8 time is found in Italian, German, French and English music. Therefore, the eighth notes must be performed equally and sixteenth notes unequally.

It is necessary in pieces of a moderate piece, and even in Adagio, that the quickest notes be played with a certain inequality.

In lively melodies, inequality should be more marked than in melodies that are gracious and of a tender expression.

Variety of Inequality

Inequality can be performed in a variety of rhythms:

1.Triplets Rhythm which may be called as lilting rhythm;

2.Dotted Rhythm, which may be called vigorous inequality;

3.Inequality may be performed in two ways:

a) Standard Inequality – most commonly by lengthening the 1st note and shortening the second

b) Reverse Inequality – shortening the 1st note and lengthening the 2nd

Condition of Inequality

Notes should be falling naturally into pairs, mainly stepwise, and be neither very fast nor very slow. The following conditions must apply for lilting inequality:

  1. Falling naturally into pairs
  2. Be mainly stepwise
  3. Neither be very fast nor very slow
  4. Be of graceful rather than energetic in character
  5. Form melodic figures rather than integral turns of melody

As for vigorous inequality, notes should:

  1. Fall naturally into pairs
  2. Be mainly stepwise
  3. Be neither very fast nor very slow
  4. Be of energetic character rather than graceful
  5. Form melodic or rhythmic figures rather than integral turns of melody

Any slurs notated over a pair of notes encourage inequality; slurs notated over more notes than two prevent pairing and avoid inequality.

Staccato signs (dashes, wedges and dots) or other instructions like macqué, détachéz discourage pairing and prelude inequality.

Standard inequality requires a marked separation between each pair of notes (within beats), but none between the pair of notes (between beats).

Lilting inequality should be slurred by pairs in performance even if the notations are not marked in slurs. The first note requires some stress and a falling effect on the second note with some separation after each pair of notes (between beats).

Reverse inequality requires marked inequality between each pair (between beats) but none between each note of the pair (not within beats).

Vigorous inequality does not need to be slurred either in notation or in the performance. It requires no stress on the first note and does not require fading away on the second note.

A stepwise passage usually requires lilting inequality. Leapwise passages are not eligible for lilting inequality but more for energy.

Same exception applies for leapwise passages to be eligible for vigorous inequality as long as the effect is not too jerky.  This can be construed as unmusical.

Inequality can only occur in passages with the shortest or fastest notes. If notes are too short or too fast, the inequality does not take place.

The speed of inequality will determine the effect of the sound: it can only sound graceful at a moderate speed and if too fast it sounds jerky.

Unless it is intended for a special purpose, rhythms would have notated unequally in writing by dotting.

Instruction such as note inégales (unequal notes) may indicate at places that inequality is considered a good place to apply. Other passages may have instruction for note égale (equal notes) at places where inequality may not be considered as a good place to apply. This usually is written in Italian ‘si suona a tempo equal’ (one plays in equal time).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: