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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Irregular Rhythms
By Ron Houston

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Ron Houston


Ancient Greek

Aristoxenus (379 BCE), in Elementa Rhythmica (350 BCE), by Lionel Pearson, 1990. Writings survived in a monastery on Mt. Athos and follow Western music theory with time divided into whole, 3/4, half and 1/4 durations. Ancient Greeks had three basic musical rhythms: dactylic (2:2), or equal values; iambic (2:1), or doubled values; and paeonic (3:2), or hemiolic. Aristoxenus rejected a fourth: epitrite (4:3), but later in the book it mentions this rhythm was common in poetry and song.

Sam Chianis applied syllabic poetric stroph patterns to the lyrics of perhaps hundreds of songs. He found parallel patterns in traditional Greek songs but did not study asymetrical meters.


Arabic is an ideal case for long and short syllabi. All Arabic poetry is metered. Arabs produced a document 1400 years ago with superb and poetic language and musical improvisation. If there were a correlation between the metered poetry and irregular rhythms, Arabs would have developed irregular rhythms. Arabs had the "aksak semai/curcuna usul," that is, 10/16, 10/8 or 10/4 rhythmic patterns along with metered poetry.


aruz vezni, Ottoman poetry, is metered, derived from Arabic influence because Turkish has no long syllabi, for example,

Fa i la tun fa i la tun fa i lun
1  1 3  3   1  1 3 3    1  1 3

taksim developed from Kuranic chanting.

aksak usul, 9/16, 9/8 or 9/4 patterns developed from peasant rhythms and developed before metered poetry. In the 1700s, Ottoman elite created the sharki form outside the Seraglio using the rhythms of the peasants. Most Ottoman sharkis (light music) and ilahis (hymns) are patterned after the meter of the words.

Other Cultures

Swedish language parallels their frequent use of dotted notes in their music.

Persians name a common rhythm shir-e-mador (mother's milk).


7/16 or S-q-q, as in the Greek Kalamatiano, a derivative of the 2/4 Syrto.

aksak is a Turkish rhythm cycle in 9: 9/16, 9/8, and 9/4. Constantin Brailoiu, Romanian ethnomusicologist, used aksak for mixed meter Balkan tunes.
aksak makam – a maquam in Turkish classical music.

aksak semai – a classical Sufi piece taking its name from the rhythm.

9/8 or q-q-q-S, as in Devetorka, Šareni Čorapi, Tri Godini, Cifte Cifte, Sıra Sıra Paytonları, Karsilama, Aksak, Niška Banja.

9/16 or q-q-q-S, as in Dajčovo Horo, Čifte Sofyan.

12/8 or S-q-S-q-q, as in Pušteno, q-q-S-q-S Dolgoto Oro.

18/16 or q-q-S-q-q-S-q-q, as in Osumnaestorka, Macedonian listening music recorded by Tanec. Possibly U Kruševo Ogin Gori.

29/16 or S-q-S-q-S-q-S-q-S-S-S, as in Choliambic (limping), from classical Greek and Roman> poetry.

33/16 (15 + 9 + 9) or q-q-q-q-S--qq + q-q-q-S + q-S-q-q, as in Smeseno Horo on Balkanton BHA 340 – Bulgarian Folk Music – instruments and tunes, Side 2, band 9 (also on EP: BHM 5888). Learned from Bulgarian jazz pianist Milčo Leviev and recorded by Don Ellis as Bulgarian Bulge. (No dance known.)


Dimčevski, Đorđi, Vie se oro makedonsko, Cultural-Artistic Organization "Goce Delčev," Skopje, 1983, with translation by "Ostali Muzikaši" (Heidi Bodding, Michele Anciaux Hoath, James Hoath, Ronald Long, Steven Lovejoy, Gordon McDaniel, Rachel McFarlane, and Sonia Tamar Seeman). Contains music transcriptions, brief dance descriptions, photos.

Hadjimanov, Vasil, Makedonski narodni pesni: Momi tikveshanki, Makedonska Kniga, Skopje, 1968. Songs from Tikvesh, Macedonia.

Ilieva, Anna, Narodni tanci ot Sredno Gorieto. Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute of Musicology, 1978. Music and dance of Sredna Gora, Bulgaria.


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