Did Bach really mean that?
Deceptive notation in baroque keyboard music
by Colin Booth

Sample from the start of chapter 5, part 1: Swung Rhythms: An introduction to “unequal” playing

By now the reader will be used to the idea that in Baroque music there were circumstances where pairs of notes (whether written equal or dotted) could and sometimes should be treated by the player in a very flexible way. The presence of a triplet rhythm, even if only implicit, could offer a performer the option of bending pairs of notes written in “square” notation to synchronise with that rhythm — this being sometimes the composer's clear expectation. In the light of this, the phenomenon of notes inégales (rhythmic inequality, or unequal performance) will seem neither illogical nor esoteric. On one level it may be seen as no more than an extension of the practices examined in the last two chapters into material where no indication is given of the presence of triplets or a triplet rhythm: a score may present music whose rhythm in general is not to be interpreted literally, but inferred — perhaps one can say imposed — by the player.

The influence of triplets and their rhythm upon other material was common, and we shall see that even French composers sometimes desired this basic, less subtle level of rhythmic alteration of music written for convenience in a simpler manner than that expected in performance. Nor did they always expect a rigid application of the kind of rules which many present-day players use from phrase to phrase to decide whether to play unequally or not. For some, rhythmic continuity may have often over-ridden such concerns, particularly in music related to the dance. On the other hand, both a more subtle lilt and at times a more extreme rhythm (which often today might be referred to as “double-dotting”) were also practised: the level of rhythmic inequality depended on the style or category of the music, on its mood, and to some extent on personal taste.

Further questions will come under consideration in this chapter: was rhythmic alteration practised by musicians everywhere, but only when writing or playing music in the French style? Or did some extend it to music outside this category, in effect making it a more universal phenomenon?

In order to make this subject more digestible, this chapter is divided into two parts. The first considers unequal performance in general, discussing its relationship to the types of notational flexibility already considered, and then moving from the accepted phenomenon of French notes inégales to consider the evidence for inequality outside France.


See the sample from the next chapter, or buy the book.