In modern music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

al parlance, a hemiola is a metrical
Meter (music)
Meter or metre is a term that music has inherited from the rhythmic element of poetry where it means the number of lines in a verse, the number of syllables in each line and the arrangement of those syllables as long or short, accented or unaccented...

 pattern in which two bar
Bar (music)
In musical notation, a bar is a segment of time defined by a given number of beats of a given duration. Typically, a piece consists of several bars of the same length, and in modern musical notation the number of beats in each bar is specified at the beginning of the score by the top number of a...

s in simple triple time
Time signature
The time signature is a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are in each measure and which note value constitutes one beat....

 (3/2 or 3/4 for example) are articulated as if they were three bars in simple duple time (2/2 or 2/4). In the example below, the third and fourth bars constitute the hemiola.
The interplay of two groups of three notes with three groups of two notes gives a distinctive pattern of 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. This rhythm is common in Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

 and known as African hemiola style.

The word hemiola derives from the Greek adjective ἡμιόλιος - hemiolios, meaning "one and a half". This term was used in a music-theoretic context by Aristoxenus
Aristoxenus of Tarentum was a Greek Peripatetic philosopher, and a pupil of Aristotle. Most of his writings, which dealt with philosophy, ethics and music, have been lost, but one musical treatise, Elements of Harmony, survives incomplete, as well as some fragments concerning rhythm and...

. (The noun ἡμιολία - hemiolia "one and a half (fem.)" was also used by the Greeks to refer to a galley powered by one and a half banks of oars.) It was originally used in music to refer to the frequency
Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency.The period is the duration of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency...

 ratio 3:2; that is, the interval
Interval (music)
In music theory, an interval is a combination of two notes, or the ratio between their frequencies. Two-note combinations are also called dyads...

 of a justly tuned
Just intonation
In music, just intonation is any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of small whole numbers. Any interval tuned in this way is called a just interval. The two notes in any just interval are members of the same harmonic series...

 perfect fifth
Perfect fifth
In classical music from Western culture, a fifth is a musical interval encompassing five staff positions , and the perfect fifth is a fifth spanning seven semitones, or in meantone, four diatonic semitones and three chromatic semitones...

Later, from around the 15th century, the word came to mean the use of three breves in a bar when the prevailing metrical scheme had two dotted breves in each bar. This usage was later extended to its modern sense of two bars in simple triple time articulated or phrased as if they were three bars in simple duple time. An example can be found in measures 64 and 65 of this excerpt from the first movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , baptismal name Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart , was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music...

's Piano Sonata, K. 332:
The effect can clearly be seen in the bottom staff, played by the left hand: the accented beats are those with two notes; hearing this passage one senses that "1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2, 1 2, 1 2" is the musical pulse.

Hemiola is found in many Renaissance pieces at areas of cadential repose such as the compositions of Josquin des Prez
Josquin Des Prez
Josquin des Prez [Josquin Lebloitte dit Desprez] , often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance...

 and Jacob Obrecht
Jacob Obrecht
Jacob Obrecht was a Flemish composer of the Renaissance. He was the most famous composer of masses in Europe in the late 15th century, being eclipsed by only Josquin des Prez after his death.-Life:...


The Hemiola was a common practice to end minuets in French baroque music. It is still the common practice when French baroque music is interpreted in historically correct fashion. Often the term Hemiolia
Hemiolis can refer to:* Hemiola, a musical pattern* A type of galley developed in the 4th century BC...

 is used in this case.

In the modern sense, hemiolas often occur in certain dance
Dance is an art form that generally refers to movement of the body, usually rhythmic and to music, used as a form of expression, social interaction or presented in a spiritual or performance setting....

s, particularly the courante
The courante, corrente, coranto and corant are some of the names given to a family of triple metre dances from the late Renaissance and the Baroque era....

. Composers of classical music who have used the device particularly extensively include Arcangelo Corelli
Arcangelo Corelli
Arcangelo Corelli was an Italian violinist and composer of Baroque music.-Biography:Corelli was born at Fusignano, in the current-day province of Ravenna, although at the time it was in the province of Ferrara. Little is known about his early life...

, George Friedrich Handel, Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic, one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school....

 and most famously in the music of Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms was a German composer and pianist, and one of the leading musicians of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene...

 (e.g. the opening of Symphony no 3). Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский ; often "Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky" in English. His names are also transliterated "Piotr" or "Petr"; "Ilitsch", "Il'ich" or "Illyich"; and "Tschaikowski", "Tschaikowsky", "Chajkovskij"...

 frequently used hemiolas in his waltzes.

Were the metrical impulse to be not a three beat pattern changing to a two beat one (as in the Mozart example above), but one where a two-beat impulse changes to a three-beat one, the pattern of 2:3 would be known as sesquialtera
Sesquialtera may mean:*An organ stop of principal scale comprising ranks at 2' and 1'.*The ratio 3:2, used in medieval music theory.*The plural of sesquialterum....

. (Note, this does not specifically refer to the "sesquialtera" organ stop.)

The term "hemiola" could also be applied to patterns that are repeated, outside of the agogic stress of the written meter, creating either a temporary feeling of a meter change or one meter over another. This could be a 5-quarter-note ostinato
In music, an ostinato is a motif or phrase, which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. An ostinato is always a succession of equal sounds, wherein each note always has the same weight or stress. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in...

, in a common-time piece, or any compound meter superimposed over a even one. See: Meter (music)#Polymeter.

Further reading

  • Brandel, Rose (1959). The African Hemiola Style, Ethnomusicology, 3(3):106-17, correction, 4(1):iv.
  • Karolyi, Otto
    Ottó Károlyi
    Ottó Károlyi , having studied in Budapest, Vienna, and London, is a musicologist and the Senior Lecturer of Music at the University of Stirling, Scotland.-Bibliography:*. Introducing Modern Music. ISBN 978-0140131147....

    (1998). Traditional African & Oriental Music, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-023107-2.
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