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Notes inégales

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Notes inégales

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In music, notes inégales (French: unequal notes) refers to a performance practice, mainly from the Baroque and Classical music eras, in which notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short. The practice was especially prevalent in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, with appearances in other European countries at the same time; and it reappeared as the standard performance practice in the 20th century in jazz.



The practice of applying unequal treatment to successive notes with the same notated value may go as far back as the earliest music of the Middle Ages; indeed some scholars believe that some plainchant of the Roman Catholic Church, including Ambrosian hymns, may have been performed as alternating long and short notes. This interpretation is based on a passage in Saint Augustine where he refers to the Ambrosian hymns as being in tria temporum (in three beats) (1); e.g. a passage rendered on the page (by a later transcriber) as a string of notes of equal note value would be performed as half-note, quarter-note, half-note, quarter-note, etc., thus in groups of three beats.

The rhythmic modes, with their application of various long-short patterns to equal written notes, may also have been a precursor to notes inégales, especially as they were practiced in France, specifically by the Notre Dame School. However the gap between the late 13th century ars antiqua use of the rhythmic modes and the middle of the 16th century, when Loys Bourgeois first mentioned notes inégales, is a large one, and little trace of the practice can be found in the fluid polyphony of the intervening period.


It was in France, beginning in the late 16th century, that notes inégales began to take on a critical role in performance practice. The earliest treatises that mention inequality of notes in performance indicate that the reason for this practice is to add beauty or interest to a passage which otherwise would be plain. Over 85 music theory and performance treatises from France alone mention the topic between 1550 and 1810, with the large majority written between 1690 and 1780. Within this body of writing there is considerable inconsistency, but by the late 17th century a consensus practice began to emerge.

The typical rule, from the late 17th century until the French Revolution, is that notes inégales applies to all notes which have a duration of one quarter the denominator of the meter, e.g. eighth notes in a meter of 2/2, or sixteenth notes in a meter of 4/4; and one half the denominator of the meter in cases of triple or compound meter, e.g. eighth notes in 3/4, sixteenth notes in 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, etc. In addition, the inégales could only function on one metrical level; for example, if sixteenths are to be played long-short, long-short, an even eighth-note pulse must be carefully maintained for the music to retain its shape.

Sometimes the notes inégales are notated as unequal, for example in some of the keyboard works of François Couperin, where he uses a dot to indicate the lengthened note; however it is uncertain whether this means to apply an even greater amount of inequality to dotted eighth-sixteenth note pairs than to eighth-eighth pairs, which are already understood to be played unequally. The exact amount of inequality to apply — whether to render eighth-eighth as dotted-eighth-sixteenth, or as a two-to-one division of a triplet — is also uncertain. Most of the treatises leave this detail to the taste of the performer, so it could have varied from double-dotted to almost imperceptible, depending on the context, and probably on the historical era as well.

There were situations which were understood to be exempt from application of notes inégales. The most obvious and prevalent was the use of a broken arpeggiated figuration in the left hand, such as an Alberti bass, which was always understood to be played regularly. Passages which mixed many note values may have been exempted from the practice. Occasionally a long slur printed over a series of notes was understood to imply that all the notes should be played evenly, except that the first note under the slur could be accented. Passages which were highly disjunct were also less likely to be played unequally than conjunct passages, although the sources are not unanimous on even this.

Occasionally the long-short version of notes inégales was reversed to a short-long, known sometimes as the Lombard rhythm or the Scotch snap.

Outside of France

One of the best sources for understanding the situation of notes inégales in France is the notation of music by composers from other European countries who wrote imitations of it. Music from Italy, Germany and England all borrowed this feature of French music, with the critical difference that the inequality of note values was notated, since performers could not be expected to add the notes inégales themselves.

Application of notes inégales to contemporary performance of music not written in France, for example the music of J.S. Bach, is extremely controversial, and indeed resulted in one of the most heated debates in 20th century musicology. One school of thought attempted to show that the French practice was actually widespread in Europe, and performance of music by composers as diverse as Bach and Scarlatti should be suffused with dotted rhythms; another school of thought held that even-note playing was the norm in their music unless dotted rhythms were explicitly notated in the score. Evidence on both sides of the argument is compelling, for example 17th century English writings recommending unequal playing (Roger North's autobiographical Notes of Me, written around 1695, describes the practice explicitly, in reference to English lute music), as well as François Couperin, who wrote in L'art de toucher le clavecin (1716), that in Italian music, Italians always write the notes exactly the way they want them played. Then again, the practice may have been more widespread in some areas, such as England, than others, such as Italy and Germany.

J.S. Bach famously imitated the style in Contrapunctus II from the Art of Fugue; however in this piece the notes inégales are written out as dotted rhythms.

Present day


A similar practice to notes inégales occurs from the 20th century to the present day, in jazz, although the term "swung note" is used by jazz musicians and listeners. Indeed, it is so universally understood that a stream of eighth-notes is to be rendered unequally that the phrase "straight eighths" is used whenever a jazz arranger wants a performer to play eighth-notes evenly. In jazz practice, in addition, it is common for the notes not only to differ in duration but in intensity. Swung eighths written on the beat are generally read as quarter-note triplets, while notes written on off-beats are played as eighth note triplets. Therefore. the underlying rhythmic grid to most jazz music is an eighth note triplet pattern. Most musicians don't do the math involved in playing notes, instead simply feeling an uneven subdivision. Occasionally, sixteenth notes are swung and played fitting into a sixteenth-note triplet grid.

The similarity to the "rule" of 17th century France is striking, in that jazz is organized in rhythmic layers, with chord changes often at the level of the bar or half-bar, followed by a quarter-note beat, and an eighth-note level in which notes are played freely, and almost always unevenly. Some scholars (2) have speculated a connection by way of the influence of French music in New Orleans on early jazz styles.

Sacred Harp

Traditional Sacred Harp singers often sing in the rhythm of notes inégales, thus deviating from the printed notes; for details see How Sacred Harp music is sung.

References and further reading

  • (1) Archibald Davison and Willi Apel, Harvard Anthology of Music. Two volumes. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1949. ISBN 0674393007
  • (2) David Fuller: "Notes inégales," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
  • The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0674615255
  • Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1947. ISBN 0393097455

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