In modern musical parlance, a hemiola is a metrical pattern in which two bars in simple triple time (3/2 or 3/4 for example) are articulated as if they were three bars in simple duple time (2/2 or 2/4).

The word "hemiola" derives from the Greek "hemiolios", meaning "one and a half". (The term hemiola or "one and a half" 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 ratio 3:2; that is, the interval of a justly tuned perfect fifth.

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. ["See" "Tempo Relationships between Duple and Triple Time in the Sixteenth Century,"Ruth I. DeFord. "Early Music History," Vol. 14, 1995, pp. 1-51] 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. (The pulse stays constant, and the duration of the beat changes.) An example can be found in measures 64 and 65 of this excerpt from the first movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart'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 gets a sensation of "1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2, 1 2, 1 2".

Hemiola is found in many Renaissance pieces at areas of cadential repose such as the compositions of Josquin des Prez and Jacob Obrecht.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples is the Ukrainian Bell Carol, Carol of the Bells.

Hemiolas (in the modern sense) often occur in certain dances, particularly the courante. Composers of classical music who have used the device particularly extensively include Arcangelo Corelli, George Friedrich Handel and most famously in the music of Johannes Brahms (e.g. the opening of Symphony no 3).

Musicians' common speech has extended the definition of "hemiola" to include any occasion of a "three-against-two" metrical feel --- including some mixed meters and polyrhythms --- contrary to the word's original meaning. For example, "America" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" is often said to contain good examples of hemiola. However, though "America" does alternate between 6/8 time and 3/4 time, this is not strictly hemiola; hemiola is specifically the regrouping of notes in simple triple meter into groups of two beats rather than three.

Likewise, three-against-two polyrhythms are not hemiola, since 1) they may or may not occur over two bars of triple meter, and 2) in hemiola, the triple-meter feel is altogether absent from the two bars in question.

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 two [?three] beat one, the pattern of 2:3 would be known as sesquialtera. (Note, this does not specifically refer to the "sesquialtera" organ stop.)


In the information above Ukrainian Bell Carol, Carol of the Bells is not a hemiola it can be felt as 3 against 2, but it is just in two groups of three.

ee also

*African hemiola style

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  • hemiola — [hem΄ē ō′lē əhem΄ē ō′lə] n. [< ML hemiolia < Gr hēmiolia, fem. of hēmiolios, in the ratio of one and one half to one < hēmi (see HEMI ) + holos, whole] especially in early music, time values in the relationship of three to two, as in a… …   English World dictionary

  • hemiola — noun Etymology: Late Latin hemiolia, from Greek hēmiolia ratio of one and a half to one, from hēmi + holos whole more at safe Date: circa 1934 a musical rhythmic alteration in which six equal notes may be heard as two groups of three or three… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • hemiola — /hem ee oh leuh/, n. Music. a rhythmic pattern of syncopated beats with two beats in the time of three or three beats in the time of two. [1590 1600; < ML hemiolia < Gk hemiolía the ratio of one and a half to one, fem. of hemiolíos half as large… …   Universalium

  • hemiola — noun The articulation of two bars in triple time as if they were three bars in duple time …   Wiktionary

  • hemiola — лат. [хэмио/ла] в мензуральной нотации группа мелких нот …   Словарь иностранных музыкальных терминов

  • hemiola — ż I, DCMs. hemiolali; lm D. hemiolaol a. hemiolali muz. «synkopowana figura rytmiczna, która w takcie na 3/4 zmienia dwie kolejne grupy metrum trójdzielnego na trzy grupy metrum dwudzielnego» ‹z gr.› …   Słownik języka polskiego

  • hemiola — hem·i·o·la …   English syllables

  • hemiola — hem•i•o•la [[t]ˌhɛm iˈoʊ lə[/t]] n. pl. las mus mad a musical rhythmic pattern of syncopated beats with two beats in the time of three or three beats in the time of two • Etymology: 1590–1600; < ML hēmiolia < Gk hēmiolía the ratio of one… …   From formal English to slang

  • hemiola — …   Useful english dictionary

  • African hemiola style — is a music rhythm common in Africa. A hemiola involves two bars in triple time (3/2 or 3/4 for example) played as if they were three bars in duple time (2/2 or 2/4).The interplay of two groups of three notes with two groups of two notes gives a… …   Wikipedia

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