Cycle (music)

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Cycle has several meanings in the field of music. Acoustically, it refers to one complete vibration, the base unit of Hertz being one cycle per second. [1] Theoretically, an interval cycle is a collection of pitch classes created by a sequence of identical intervals. Individual pieces that aggregate into larger works are considered cycles, for example, the movements of a suite, symphony, sonata, or string quartet. [2] This definition can apply to everything from settings of the Mass or a song cycle to an opera cycle. Cycle also applies to the complete performance of an individual composer's work in one genre. [3]


Harmonic cycles—repeated sequences of a harmonic progression—are at the root of many musical genres, such as the twelve-bar blues. In compositions of this genre, the chord progression may be repeated indefinitely, with melodic and lyrical variation forming the musical interest. The form theme and variations is essentially of this type, but generally on a larger scale.

Composition using a tone row is another example of a cycle of pitch material, although it may be more difficult to hear because the variations are more diverse.

Rhythmic cycles

Indian classical music

In Indian classical music, a specific rhythmic structure known as a tala is repeated through the length of the raga, and used as a basis for improvisation of the drum parts.

Music of Indonesia

In the gamelan music of Indonesia, there are nested gong cycles which determine the rhythmic framework of the piece. This sort of cycling is called colotomy. In the same way as specific harmonic cycles determine the genre of many Western pieces (like the blues), gamelan pieces are classified according to their colotomic structures. Some other styles of music, such as gagaku or pi phat, have been analyzed colotomically.

Sub-Saharan African music traditions

Rhythm in Sub-Saharan Africa is typically generated by multiple cross-rhythmic cycles, in relation to a primary cycle of four main beats. [4] This basic musical period has a bipartite structure; it is made up of two rhythmically opposed cells, consisting of two beats each. [5] Kubik points out that the four-beat cycle is a shorter period than what is normally heard in European music. This accounts for the stereotype of African music as "repetitive." The cycles have a beginning and an end, with the two joining. [6] The lead instrument, or soloist, may temporarily contradict the primary cycle with cross beats and larger phrases, but awareness of the cycle is ever present. [7] In many sub-Saharan and Disapora musics, a key pattern, typically played on a bell, establishes the basic cycle or period.

Mixed cycles

Different types of musical cycles can overlap. One example is isorhythm, the medieval practice of using melodic and rhythmic cycles in one or two voices. There is a certain sequence of pitch material (known as the color) and a separate sequence of rhythmic values (known as the talea), which is of different length. If the lengths of the two cycles are relatively prime, a complex melody will emerge. Most compositions using this technique end when the two cycles coincide.

A similar process is used in serial music, although the number of different overlapping cycles can be quite large, and encode a wide variety of musical parameters, such as dynamics, articulation, timbre, register, and so forth.

Opera cycles

See also

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Period (music)

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Level (music)

A level, also "tonality level", Gerhard Kubik's "tonal step," "tonal block," and John Blacking's "root progression," is an important melodic and harmonic progression where melodic material shifts between a whole tone above and a whole tone below the tonal center. This shift can occur to both neighboring notes, in either direction, and from any point of departure. The steps above and below the tonic are often called contrasting steps. A new harmonic segment is created which then changes the tonality but not necessarily the key.

Colotomy Indonesian musical rhythmic and metric used in Gamelan

Colotomy is an Indonesian description of the rhythmic and metric patterns of gamelan music. It refers to the use of specific instruments to mark off nested time intervals, or the process of dividing rhythmic time into such nested cycles. In the gamelan, this is usually done by gongs of various size: the kempyang, ketuk, kempul, kenong, gong suwukan, and gong ageng. The fast-playing instruments, kempyang and ketuk, keep a regular beat. The larger gongs group together these hits into larger groupings, playing once per each grouping. The largest gong, the gong ageng, represents the largest time cycle and generally indicates that that section will be repeated, or the piece will move on to a new section.

Bell pattern Rhythmic pattern of striking a hand-held bell or other instrument

A bell pattern is a rhythmic pattern of striking a hand-held bell or other instrument of the idiophone family, to make it emit a sound at desired intervals. It is often a key pattern, in most cases it is a metal bell, such as an agogô, gankoqui, or cowbell, or a hollowed piece of wood, or wooden claves. In band music, bell patterns are also played on the metal shell of the timbales, and drum kit cymbals.


A guajeo is a typical Cuban ostinato melody, most often consisting of arpeggiated chords in syncopated patterns. Some musicians only use the term guajeo for ostinato patterns played specifically by a tres, piano, an instrument of the violin family, or saxophones. Piano guajeos are one of the most recognizable elements of modern-day salsa. Piano guajeos are also known as montunos in North America, or tumbaos in the contemporary Cuban dance music timba.

Traditional sub-Saharan African harmony is a music theory of harmony in Sub-Saharan Africa music based on the principles of homophonic parallelism, homophonic polyphony, counter melody and ostinato-variation. Polyphony is common in African music and heterophony is a common technique as well. Although these principles of traditional African music are of Pan-African validity, the degree to which they are used in one area over another varies. Specific techniques that used to generate harmony in Africa are the "span process", "pedal notes", "Rhythmic harmony", "harmony by imitation", and "scalar clusters".


  1. Randel, Don, "Cycle", The Harvard Dictionary of Music, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1986, p. 218.
  2. G. M. Tucker and Roger Parker, "Cyclic Form", The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  3. "cycle." In The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online, (accessed December 25, 2011).
  4. Ladzekpo, C.K. (1996). Web. "Main Beat Schemes," Foundation Course in African Music. Web.
  5. Peñalosa, David, The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc., 2010, p. 65 ISBN   1-886502-80-3.
  6. Kubik, Gerhard Theory of African Music (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology) v. 2. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 41. ISBN   978-0-226-45694-2
  7. Kubik 2010, p. 41.
  8. Catherine Miller (2003). Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Claudel et le groupe des six: rencontres poético-musicales autour des mélodies et des chansons. Editions Mardaga. p. 110.