Mixed Metres: an exploration within the music of Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown

October 6 2020, by Tiggy Jones

Mixed metres, or the change of time signature at the beginning of each bar, is frequently used by Jason Robert Brown (JRB) and Stephen Sondheim, to effectively convey a mood, character, or to warp the feeling of the bar lines for a particular effect. JRB has often cited Sondheim as one of his greatest inspirations, and maybe he has developed his use of the device because of Sondheim’s own employment of it in many of his musical numbers.

In Sondheim’s ‘Anyone can Whistle’, the closing number of Act 1 is an ironic and satirical song called ‘Simple’; it is anything but. The alternation between 3/4 and 2/4 in the chorus underpins the lyrics ‘Simple? Simple? Simple as A, B, C. Simple as 1, 2, 3.’ This juxtaposition creates a funny yet muddled atmosphere, and when thought of in context of the song, is highly paradoxical. J Bowden Hapgood, who is the main singer in the song, is attempting to separate the townspeople into two groups, sane, and insane, and thus find the ‘Cookies’ (patients) who have escaped the local mental hospital. Because the metre changes only occur during the chorus and are not repeated over and over, it appears instable and unpredictable, mirroring the behaviour of the Cookies. Another example where mixed metres have been used to evoke a certain mood is the title song of JRB’s ‘13’, a musical following a group of children as they move into their teenage years. The mixed metres once again occur in the chorus, perhaps the section of the song the composers believe to be most memorable and thus most important to convey a desired mood. However, this time JRB changes between three different metres, producing an awkward and tricky feeling much like that experienced when becoming thirteen. There are many subtle references to the number thirteen that often go unnoticed; the band contains thirteen teenage players, there are thirteen teenage actors, and in the chorus of the opening number, each phrase acts up to 13 beats thanks to some clever mixed metres. A 4/4 bar followed by a 2/4 bar gives us 6 beats, and then a 4/4 bar followed by a 3/4 bar gives 7 beats, completing the 13 beats. JRB also highlights the word ‘teen’ by placing it on the downbeat of every 4/4 bar; this feels like the only sense of stability and can be interpreted as the only thing the new teenagers are sure of in their progression through puberty – that they are teenagers.

There are also a couple of examples where mixed metres have been used not in a motivic way, but to break up the natural flow of a piece. In Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ one of the princesses, Cinderella, sings a solo piece (‘On the Steps of the Palace’) describing her feelings towards the prince who has coincidently left pitch on the steps so she cannot run away. Sondheim uses both 9/8 and 6/8 to aid the feeling of barless-ness, having already implemented a metrically displaced accompaniment to blur the rigidness of the bar lines. The disjunct fragmented phrases – containing many awkward leaps and speech like rhythms – are as if Cinderella is giving a running commentary of her thoughts as they pop into her head. I don’t think that Sondheim always makes a conscious choice to use more than one metre; in this example I think Cinderella sometimes needed an extra beat to extend her phrase – like an extended thought. In Contrast, JRB uses a single 2/4 bar in ‘Moving Too Fast’ a piece written (otherwise) completely in common time. This gives the effect of a half bar, and its position – in the contrasting middle section – shows the arrogant character of Jamie finally taking a breath and reflecting on all he has to say.

Characterisation through musical features is one of the aims of writing for musical theatre; using time signatures is no different in achieving this. ‘The Schmuel song’ is a farcical story in JRB’s ‘The Last Five Years’, following an old Jewish tailor and his talking clock, and the verses all contain a constant and regular changing metre. JRB also uses an asymmetrical metre in his song, which adds to the peculiarity and shows the character of Schmuel and the mysterious situation he is in as ominous. The phrase is comprised of a 4/4 bar, then a 7/8 bar, then a 4/4 bar, finishing the phrase with a 2/4 bar, and is first heard in the introduction, continuing through the verse. In this piece JRB is actually alluding to Mussorgsky’s piano suite ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ which is famous for the use of mixed metres in the promenade movements, often including asymmetrical metres, to represent someone walking (or indeed limping) through an exhibition. There is also a movement about two Jewish men, one rich and one poor, titled ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’ which is very likely to have been JRB’s motivation for naming his character Schmuel. Sondheim also depicts the title role in his musical ‘Sweeney Todd’ in this way, showing Todd’s true feelings and beliefs when he settles into 4/4. The piece starts in 3/4 but once at the chorus the 3/4 bar behaves like a 6/8 bar, as a result of the arpeggiated accompaniment (2 groups of 3 quavers = 6/8 as opposed to 3 groups of 2 quavers which would = 3/4 ) and this bar shows Todd’s yearning and longing for security and steadiness. The time signature quickly changes however into 4/4 where at last it feels calm and composed, presenting Todd as comfortable now he is reunited with his knives. Sondheim also chooses to put the more menacing and poignant lines in the 4/4 bars, as if Todd can only reveal these things when he doesn’t have to hide, the 4/4 bar acting as his safety net. He sings ‘and we’ll do wonders, won’t we?’, addressing his knife, and referencing the people he will kill with them.

Both composers have achieved dramatic effects, often integral to the plot or a character, through their use of mixed metres. Sondheim often uses it to escape the constraints of bar lines, or even confuse the character, whereas JRB implements it with a specific impact already in mind. There are many more examples of mixed metres in their work, which shows how useful and successful it is as a musical feature, and it’s presence makes a musical number even more memorable.

Tiggy Jones, U6