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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Music: Do Dancers hear music differently

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Thanks MJ. I read that he said "hear" but I wondered what he meant in further explanation. The word "hear" when dealing with musicians is a pretty vast word.

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May I add 2-crotchets worth, as neither a dancer nor a musician? It seems to me that a basic discipline of a musician is to hear the bars - whether or not notes are actually sounded, and whether the emphasis is, or is not, on a normally accented note of the bar, and so on. This discipline must continue throughout the whole piece, and is absolutely essential particularly if you are playing with others. On top of that lies the musical phrasing, which can be quite fluid in comparison. My guess is that dancers who are not exposed to the discipline of playing music, and who will be "going with the flow", will not have that mental metronome of the bar structure going all the time in their minds. I think this is just repeating some of what has been said above however.


The necessary discipline of a musician would be very critical when playing in a group where there is a complex rhythmic structure which repeats in an apparently (though not in fact) irregular way, to ensure that each member of the group comes in and out with the correct timing. In contrast, I guess it is unlikely that ballet dancers would be faced with having to do this.



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Well put, Jim. But I would like to expand on that. When playing from a score I don't think musicians "hear" music they "see" it, which could also explain some of the differences.

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I have to say that when I dance in class or indeed set a step or a dance, I don't always count - I let the music tell me what to do. Of course there are occasions when I must count for clarification or to adhere to the counts as set, but I prefer to let the music itself guide me, especially when I'm choreographing myself.


I remember a story about Rite of Spring when Nijinsky choreographed it. It was such complicated timing, that the only person to understand it was Marie Rambert, who was versed in Dalcroze Eurythmics, and she had to teach it to the company. They apparently, if I remember correctly, counted desperately the whole way through the ballet!

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Actually I think dancers and musicians hear music differently at various stages of their development. I hear music quite differently now than I did as a young developing dancer. I can listen to pieces of music I have heard my whole life and one day, boom, it sounds like a different piece. When socializing with musicians I have noticed they sing music quite differently than I. Whereas I use da, da, da, da, la, la, la, la,dumda, da dee da,da etc., musicians sing chica, chica sounds. I am not sure if any of this means anything to the conversation. Just my observations.

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This coming from someone who majored in Music as an undergrad...I found it surprising that so many of the initial posters in this thread honed in on counting right away. When I stop and think about what I focus on when listening to music, my attention is more on movement than counting. Movement as in flow, lilt, tension, lightness, heavyness - all of those are visual depictions of sound but that's what comes to me (as opposed to a score for example, as someone mentioned). When I listen to classical music, I don't even think about "counting" it, but rather "conducting" it which is sort of a combination of counting and movement, I suppose.


My DD is a counter. An interesting experience for her was studying with Suzanne Farrell, who uses a lot of mixed time signatures and oddly counted combinations in her teaching (ie: lots of 7s and 9s mixed with 4s and 3s). The counts are often fast and confusing, but after the combination is learned she encourages dancers to try to forget about the counts and move to the music, as awkward as that may sometimes be.

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Victoria Leigh

That is because teachers have to be able to count the music if they are going to teach children. Ultimately, teaching them how to hear it is also very important, but when they are learning combinations and choreography they will also need to count a lot of the time, as evidenced by the example you stated above. Mixed time signatures are often in choreography, but rarely in class music. Hopefully, the dancers will learn to hear the music and not just count it, but one cannot expect that in the early years. Teachers, therefore, need to know how to count it! :)

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When I think of mixed time signatures I always think of "America" from "West Side Story" - everyone can sing it without worrying about the actual counts! Miss Leigh is right though in that you need to be able to break down a piece which is not so well known. Also I do agree that the melody or lilt can affect whether a piece of music is right for a particular enchainment, rather than just the time signature.

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This book has an article on Dance and the Brain which might be useful for this discussion (page no.71 in the side bar). It looks at what parts of the brain are active when dancers learn steps, which might be helpful for thinking about how dancers hear music. Speaking as someone who was trained first and foremost as a musician, I am forever baffled at how some of the women in my class who have been dancing for years can be off the beat! :P



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