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The Basics of Music

Before we begin learning patterns for finger cymbals, we must have a solid understanding of the basics of music such as pulse, tempo, meter, and time.

The pulse of the music is the repetitive flow of evenly-spaced marks in time. This stream of regular pulses is the foundation on which the music unfolds. A metronome marks the pulse or beat of the music; the beat unfolds over the pulse.

The rate at which the pulse flows is the tempo. Tempo may be slow—60–76 beats per minute; medium—80–110 beats per minute; or fast—120 or more beats per minute.

Meter is a measurement consisting of temporal cycles of recurring beats, for example, cycles of 4, 3, or 6 beats. One cycle of recurring beats is referred to as a bar or a measure of music. Beats occur in combinations of low and high pitches, which give the rhythm its character and identifies the time.

The time of the music and meter is typically described using the notation 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, and even 6/8, 7/8, and 9/8. This notation reveals the meter as it unfolds over the underlying pulse stream.

In Western musical notation, a quarter-note is considered the “average” standard note. Using quarter-notes, for example, there will then be one beat for each pulse to complete a cycle, or meter—4 beats per bar of 4 pulses for music in the common “marching” 4/4 time. Notation in 9/8 time indicates nine eighth-notes played within a nine-beat bar.

Listen to your music. Listen for where the new cycle begins on the first beat of a measure, and you will eventually be able to intuit the time signature and therefore, the rhythm.

The basic rhythm in belly dance music is carried by the principal low-pitched drum note, called a dum (“doom”). The high-pitched beat, called a tek, may vary, so long as the basic rhythm is maintained. Placement of the “dum” sound is generally not as variable as the “teks,” for the “dum” and fundamental “tek” sounds combine to determine the rhythm pattern; changing these may change the rhythm (but not necessarily).

Connecting beats—those that provide continuity between measures—are light and in addition to the basic rhythm structure. In playing finger cymbals, they may be skipped or even augmented. Finger cymbals as instruments are traditionally an accompaniment to the drums and other percussion, not necessarily a beat-for-beat imitation of the drum (though they may be—it’s up to the percussionist).

While execution is important, variety is one of the factors that makes one performance stand out from another; this is true for your zill playing as well as your dance. Besides being out of time or rhythm altogether, the singular factor that plagues many a good performance is monotonous repetition on the zills. Playing nothing but the standard gallop—sets of three played to a single drum note, called triples (as contrasted with triplets, a different term altogether)—just won’t cut it if you want your performance to shine. Yet, as you will discover, the gallop is at the core of many intricate flourishes that lend intrigue and variety to your zill playing. It is therefore essential that you master the gallop (triples) and gain as much speed as you can. Practice, practice, practice!

Use of syncopation (a temporary displacement or modification of the regular accents) and other variations within rhythm patterns create interest for your audience as well as for the dancer. Intended silences over one or more measures can add drama and suspense to your performance. In actuality, you will not only be playing to the drums, but dancing to your own finger cymbals—manipulating the basic pattern, and becoming your own musician!

Arranging Zill Patterns
to Produce the Basic Rhythms

While I emphasize the importance of “feeling” the rhythm to play it properly, there will be times when counting out the rhythms and listening for patterns will be of value in your learning experience.

All the rhythms for belly dance are played using only three patterns arranged in groups: the gallop (triples), alternating (doubles), and single beats. It is the grouping and arrangement of these three distinct pattern groups that create the rhythm on your finger cymbals.

A “triple” is played as three beats per single drum beat, typically starting on the “dum” or low-pitched sound. Alternating “doubles” frequently accompany the high-pitched “tek” drum beat. Single beats are used for accents and as connection beats between measures (bars).

Using a typical combination of “triples,” “doubles,” and “singles,” a 4/4 baladi pattern would count out as 2-3-1-3, as in “dum-dum tek-tek-tek dum tek-tek-tek.” In this example, you will play your finger cymbals in a beat-for-beat pattern matching drum beats. (When you pick up speed, you may add more beats as flourishes, which will impart a stunning intricacy to your zilling technique.)

How would you dance to this rhythm and play zills at the same time? Ah—the complexity of it all! For the 4/4 baladi pattern played as 2-3-1-3, you would usually move only to the “dum” sounds, which occur as the first and third beats in the measure: 2-3-1-3 (dance on the “bolded” beat). This diagram may help:

Pulse

1

2

3

4

Sound

dum-dum

tek-tek-tek

dum

tek-tek-tek

Zills

2

3

1

3

Dance



You may also play “triples” for each pulse in the bar, dancing one step for each set of “triples.” Remember how boring the “gallop” can be when it goes on incessantly, so use consecutive triples sparingly. Variety and interest is your goal.

How do some other rhythms stack up using this method of visualization and counting? Even the most complex rhythm—those with an odd number of beats within an evenly-pulsed measure—will become second nature, because you will still be combining sets of triples, doubles, and singles. That’s all there is to it!

3/4 Rhythm

Pulse

1

2

3

Sound

dum

tek-tek

tek-tek-tek

Zills

1

2

3

Dance



Arabic 9/8 Rhythm

Pulse

1  2

3  4

5  6

7  8  9

Sound

dum

tek-tek

dum

tek-tek-tek

Zills

3

3

3

1-1-1

Dance



NOTE: The ethnic names for belly dance rhythms often create confusion within the dance world. These names may come from several colloquial versions of Arabic (Egyptian, Iraqi, Sudani, Syrian, etc.), Farsi, Turkish, Greek, or even Hindi. Except for the Baladi, Masmoudi, Karshlama, and Ayuob. When discussing these rhythms with others, learn the preferred local ethnic name for the rhythm, and also learn to use the time signatures in addition.



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