Exploring rhythm in John Williams’ music (pt.2 – Accent Displacement)

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This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.

Exploring Rhythm in John Williams’ Music (Pt.2 – Accent Displacement)

Continuing from Part 1 of the series, we will explore additional intriguing rhythmic techniques showcased in the music of John Williams. In Part 1, we explored how John Williams incorporated time signature changes in his music. Now, let’s shift our focus to his use of accent displacement techniques. We will present a variety of musical examples that highlight this technique’s application, accompanied by mockup examples. Get ready to have some fun!

Notes:

Due to copyright issues, all audio and scores displayed on this page are alternative versions or recreations of the original content.

In this post, we have chosen to omit some of the instruments from the score to place a greater emphasis on the rhythmic aspect of the music.

What is an Accent Displacement?

“Accent displacement, in a broader sense, is identical to switching time signature, as a composer may ignore the original strong and weak pulses between the measures to diverge from the rhythm.”

Accent displacement is the technique of changing rhythmic stress in music by introducing artificial rhythmic accents against the natural pulse of the music. When listening to music, you may naturally tap your feet to the rhythm, but you may also notice moments where you feel sudden shifts in downbeats and accents not falling together (such as in Salsa music). The change may be less obvious when compared to a time change or a metric modulation, but nevertheless, it affects the listener’s perception of the rhythm.

Accent displacement, in a broader sense, is identical to switching time signature, as a composer may ignore the original strong and weak pulses between the measures to diverge from the rhythm. Despite this fact, accent displacement is different in that the resulting rhythmic shift is temporary, and in most cases, any time-related markings are not notated on the score. In contrast to both time signature changes and metric modulation (which actually change the meter or tempo in the music), accent displacement only affects the groove and rhythmic continuity while keeping the original tempo and time.

Throughout many compositional works of John Williams, especially in his works for the soundtracks of the Harry Potter series, the technique was used excessively, making his music sound more rhythmically appealing and less predictable.

Example (A) – “Aunt Marge’s Waltz,” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

MM. 1-5
MM. 6-11
MM. 12-17

Ex. A is a 3/4 Waltz exhibiting a conventional “Strong-weak-weak” triple meter pulse. The song breaks free from the 3-beat flow in measures 8-9 and 14-15 by fitting three 2/4 phrases into two 3/4 measures. Notice the different placement of notes in the lower register instruments (Ex. Vc, Cb, Low Brass) in measures 8-9 and 14-15. In measures 8-9, to intentionally disrupt the triple meter pulse, Vc, Cb, and Low Brass play a quarter note on the 2nd beat instead of the first. Conversely, in measures 14-15, even though the melody was phrased in 2/4 in the same way as measures 8-9, Vc, Cb, and Low Brass stress the first beat of each measure to reconnect with the song’s regular triple meter rhythm, continuing from measure 16. Our score reduction with visible 2/4 time signature notation can be seen in Fig. A.

Accent displacement
Fig. A – Score reduction with visible 2/4 time signature

Example (B) – “Hedwig’s theme,” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) (Orchestral Reduction)

Accent displacement
MM. 1-3
MM. 4-5
MM. 6-7

Measure 4:

In measure 4 of Ex. (B), the Violin stresses the 3rd eighth note of the third triplet (Ⓐ). Since the music previously had accents on the 1st and 3rd downbeats, this sudden upbeat accent subverts the rhythmic flow of the song.

Measure 5:

On the 2nd beat (Ⓑ) of measure 5, two triplets in the Violins and Woodwinds are slurred together with staccato, to be performed on the second notes of each triplet. As a result of the slurs and staccatos, the phrase now has to be played with multiple bows (or breaths), dividing the two triplets into 3 rhythmic stresses.

Example (C) – “Witches, Wands and Wizards,” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

MM. 1-7
MM. 8-13
MM. 14-17

Ex. (C) is an excerpt of the first 17 measures of the music, but the whole piece is well worth studying as it displays a masterful use of rhythm.

Measures 5-7:

The song is set in 3/4 time, but by placing accented dotted quarter notes across the barlines between measures 5 and 7 in the brass, the piece sounds as if it’s temporarily escaping from 3/4. In this particular section, with the brass and high strings at the focal point of the music, the displaced accents help to add more confusion to the rhythm. The rest of the instruments play in a regular 3/4 rhythm.

Fig. B presents a new interpretation of the score with displaced rhythmic accents (the mock-up contains only brass & timpani without any other instruments).

Fig. B

Measures 13-17:

In measures 13 and 14, while the woodwinds emphasize the downbeats with rhythmic stress, the high brass play consecutive offbeat quarter note figures to add tension until the final upbeat of measure 14. The time change in measure 15 also assists in breaking away from the regular 3/4 rhythm by dividing a one-measure phrase into two separately accented 3/8 measures. (Refer to Fig. C for the 3/4 notation of the merged measures 15 and 16).

Fig. C – Measures 15&16 from the original score notated in 3/4

That’s pretty much it. In our future articles, we plan to show our own examples that demonstrate how rhythmic displacement is utilized within compositions. So, stay tuned for these upcoming pieces as we delve into this captivating topic.

Before we finish, we highly recommend this book to anyone seeking an in-depth study of rhythm in general. Please note that the following link is an affiliate link, but we genuinely believe it is an excellent resource for improving and gaining further knowledge about rhythm.

[Study Pack]

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.