Metric modulation

In music, metric modulation is a change in pulse rate (tempo) and/or pulse grouping (subdivision) which is derived from a note value or grouping heard before the change. Examples of metric modulation may include changes in time signature across an unchanging tempo, but the concept applies more specifically to shifts from one time signature/tempo (metre) to another, wherein a note value from the first is made equivalent to a note value in the second, like a pivot or bridge. The term "modulation" invokes the analogous and more familiar term in analyses of tonal harmony, wherein a pitch or pitch interval serves as a bridge between two keys. In both terms, the pivoting value functions differently before and after the change, but sounds the same, and acts as an audible common element between them. Metric modulation was first described by Richard Franko Goldman (1951) while reviewing the Cello Sonata of Elliott Carter, who prefers to call it tempo modulation (Schiff 1998, 23). Another synonymous term is proportional tempi (Mead 2007, 65).

A technique in which a rhythmic pattern is superposed on another, heterometrically, and then supersedes it and becomes the basic metre. Usually, such time signatures are mutually prime, e.g., 4
and 3
, and so have no common divisors. Thus the change of the basic metre decisively alters the numerical content of the beat, but the minimal denominator (1
when 4
changes to 3
; 1
when, e.g., 5
changes to 7
, etc.) remains constant in duration. (Nicolas Slonimsky 2000)

Determination of the new tempo

The following formula illustrates how to determine the tempo before or after a metric modulation, or, alternatively, how many of the associated note values will be in each measure before or after the modulation:

(Winold 1975, 230-31)

Thus if the two half notes in 4
time at a tempo of quarter note = 84 are made equivalent with three half notes at a new tempo, that tempo will be:

(Winold 1975, 230, example taken from Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for woodwind quartet (1950), Fantasy, mm. 16-17.)

Note that this tempo, quarter note = 126, is equal to dotted-quarter note = 84 (( = .) = ( = .)).

A tempo (or metric) modulation causes a change in the hierarchical relationship between the perceived beat subdivision and all potential subdivisions belonging to the new tempo. Benadon (2004) has explored some compositional uses of tempo modulations, such as tempo networks and beat subdivision spaces.

Three challenges arise when performing metric modulations:

  1. Grouping notes of the same speed differently on each side of the barline, ex: (quintuplet =sextuplet ) with sixteenth notes before and after the barline
  2. Subdivision used on one side of the barline and not the other, ex: (triplet =) with triplets before and quarter notes after the barline
  3. Subdivision used on neither side of the barline but used to establish the modulation, ex: (quintuplet =) with quarter notes before and after the barline
(Weisberg 1996)

Examples of the use of metric modulation include Carter's Cello Sonata (1948) (Cunningham 2007, 113), A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) (Farberman 1997, 158), and Björk's "Desired Constellation" (.=) (Malawey 2007, 142-44).

Score notation

Metric modulations are generally notated as 'note value' = 'note value'. For example,

This notation is also normally followed by the new tempo in parentheses. This is analogous with the assignment in imperative computer languages: {x = f(x);}    {xnew = f(xold);}

Before the modern concept and notation of metric modulations composers used the terms doppio piu mosso and doppio piu lento for double and half-speed, and later markings such as:


indicating double speed, which would now be marked (=) (Weisberg 1996, 52).

The phrase l'istesso tempo was used for what may now be notated with metric modulation markings. For example: 2
to 6
(=.), will be marked l'istesso tempo, indicating the beat is the same speed.

See also


  • Benadon, Fernando (2004). "Towards a Theory of Tempo Modulation", Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, August 3rd–7th, 2004, Evanston, Illinois, edited by S. D. Lipscomb, 563–66. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, School of Music; Sydney, Australia: Causal productions. ISBN 1-876346-50-7 (CD-ROM).
  • Goldman, Richard Franko (1951). "Current Chronicle". Musical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (January): 83–89.
  • Mead, Andrew (2007). "On Tempo Relations". Perspectives of New Music 45, no. 1 (Winter): 64-108.
  • Schiff, David (1998). The Music of Elliott Carter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-3612-3.
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas (2000). "Metric Modulation". In A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, second edition, edited by Richard Kostelanetz; senior editor, Douglas Puchowski; assistant editor, Gregory Brender, 407. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 978-0-02-865379-2 (cloth). Paperback reprint, New York and London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 978-0-415-93764-1.
  • Malawey, Victoria (2007). "Temporal Process, Repetition, and Voice in Björk's 'Medúlla'". PhD diss. Bloomington:Indiana University. ISBN 978-0-549-46627-7.
  • Weisberg, Arthur (1996). Performing Twentieth-Century Music: A Handbook for Conductors and Instrumentalists. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-06655-5.
  • Winold, Allen (1975). "Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Music". In Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Gary Wittlich, 208–69. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.

Further reading

  • Arlin, Mary I. (2000). "Metric Mutation and Modulation: The Nineteenth-Century Speculations of F.-J. Fétis". Journal of Music Theory 44, no. 2 (Fall): 261–322.
  • Bernard, Jonathan W. (1988). "The Evolution of Elliott Carter's Rhythmic Practice". Perspectives of New Music 26, no. 2: (Summer): 164–203.
  • Braus, Ira Lincoln (1994). "An Unwritten Metrical Modulation in Brahms's Intermezzo in E minor, op. 119, no. 2". Brahms Studies 1:161–69.
  • Cunningham, Michael G. (2007). Technique for Composers. ISBN 978-1-4259-9618-5.
  • Everett, Walter (2009). "Any Time at All: The Beatles' Free Phrase Rhythms". In The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, edited by Kenneth Womack, 183–99. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-86965-X (cloth); ISBN 0-521-68976-7 (pbk).
  • Farberman, Harold (1997). The Art of Conducting Technique: A New Perspective. S.l.: Alfred Publishing. ISBN 978-1-57623-730-4.
  • Reese, Kirsten (1999). "Ruhelos: Annäherung an Johanna Magdalena Beyer". MusikTexte: Zeitschrift für Neue Musik, nos. 81–82 (December) 6–15.
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