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An analysis of a ritardando

An analysis of a ritardando step-by-step by Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, through the lens of entrainment and embodied cognition.
© Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, University of Oslo
Ritardando is a musical term (from Italian) for a deceleration in tempo. In the following a ritardando in a song is analysed in accordance to the theory presented in this course.

The song “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand (from 2004) has an electric guitar intro that actually sets a pulse with a particularly fast tempo (286 bpm). The repeated guitar tones are identical, which is a typical characteristic of musical elements that mark downbeats. However, this tempo is so fast that most bodily up-and-down movements (head nodding, foot tapping) become very tedious or difficult to perform. Thus, a bodily interpretation of what is the main pulse will more likely be half the tempo (143 bpm) even from the very start.

This interpretation is confirmed when the verse starts. A hi-hat with accentuations on every second guitar entry marks the downbeats of this slower tempo. Half way through the verse (0:20) a bass drum is added also marking the downbeats, making this slower pulse even more definite. How the pulse is interpreted from the start of the song may not be crucial to the experience, but the energy that this part expresses gives a kind of aggressive mood to the opening of the song.

The most interesting section of Take Me Out in relation to entrainment and pulse is the ritardando from 0:50 till 0:56; when the tempo during two bars slows down from the initial 143 bpm to 104 bpm.

Throughout this section a bass guitar doubles the initial energetic guitar theme while bass drum sounds clearly mark the downbeats. The ritardando is audible from 0:50, but a slight deceleration has already taken the tempo down from 143 to 140 bpm. When it truly starts, it has a smooth descend to 123 bpm during the first bar, continuing down to 104 during the last.

To establish the new tempo and confirm that the ritardando now has ended, four downbeats are marked with all instruments. In Kronman and Sundberg’s (1987) study of musical ritardando they argue for connections to natural decelerations in physical human movement. Their belief is that we recognize how the ritardando develops from patterns in our human experience of slowing down the speed of bodily movements.

In “Take Me Out” the diminutive early ritardando probably prepares the listener unconsciously of what will come. Then the smooth ritardando develops according to a natural deceleration of a physical movement. Since a ritardando may signal a continuing path to a full stop, the music has to clearly confirm that the ritardando now has ended and a new tempo is established.

After the slower tempo is established through four bars of clear energetic downbeat markings, a new guitar theme is introduced. A this point the hi-hat is moved to the off-beats. They can be experienced as attractors marking an opposite position of the downbeats in a bodily up-and-down movement.

In popular music and especially dance music, an off-beat hi-hat (or similar high frequency sounds) very often corresponds to the peak position of an up-and-down movement. Both the guitar theme and the following vocals also have their highest note entry on the off-beat followed by a descending interval. Are such structural positions coincidental or do the alternation of low and high sounds and matching ascending and descending melodic lines fortify experiences of up and down when moving to a rhythmic pulse? We’ll attempt to answer these questions together in week 6.


© Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, University of Oslo
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