Feminine Endings

All right, what are these? Well, they're the endings that aren't masculine.

We'll beg the question, but first get a piece of paper and a pencil.

Write a four-four time signature and beside it four-quarter notes. Below these quarter notes, write three more rows of four quarter-notes.

A little ways below the four-four groups, write a three-four time signature and three quarter-notes beside it. Below those three, write two more rows of three quarter-notes.

Skip down a bit more and write a two-four time signature, with a row of two quarter-notes beside it. Below that write a second row.

Now write: Mary had a little lamb, showing syllabification. It should look like this: Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb.

Now say the text aloud. Note that some syllables were stressed and some were not. Mark the stressed syllables with a - line above them and the unstressed ones with a u above them. Your pattern should be : - u - u - u - (MA-ry HAD a LIT-tle LAMB).

Now we're going to apply the same principle to the quarter-notes you wrote earlier.

For four-four time, the accents are on the first and third beat, yes? Think of a march; the footfalls are on beats one and three. (In four-four, the first beat is even stronger than the third, actually, but for our purposes here, that is only of curiosity value. Consider only the downbeat of a measure the stressed one.)

For the first row of four quarter-notes, write - u - u above them. The mark - indicates the stress ("accent"); and u indicates non-stress ("un-accent").

For the second row of four quarter-notes, replace the last quarter with a quarter-rest, and then mark stressed and non-stressed notes in the same order: - u - * (The * represents the rest; best I can do!)

In the third row, replace the last two quarters with rests and mark: - u * *

The fourth row should be one quarter-note and three quarter-rests: - * * *

If a measure (or a phrase) ends on a stressed beat, it is called a masculine ending. Therefore, rows two ( - u - * ) and four ( - * * * ) illustrate this. The last-sounding pitch occurs on the first or third beat of the measure. That's what makes this masculine.

Rows one (- u - u ) and three (- u * * ) are therefore feminine. The last-sounding pitch is occurring in a feminine, or unstressed, place (beat four and beat two, respectively).

(I am really sorry about the sexist terminology, but that's what these stress patterns are called.)

Now let's move on to the three-four groups. In this time signature, there is only one strong beat, and it is on one. Think of a waltz.

Mark the stress pattern in the first row ( - u u ). In the second row, replace the last quarter-note with a rest. In the third row, replace the last two quarters with rests.

There is only one masculine ending in three-four time: row three ( - * * ). Rows one ( - u u ) and two (- u * ) are feminine endings.

For two-four time, there are only two possibilities: one is masculine ( - * ), row one; and the other is feminine ( - u ).

Now let's go back to Mary and her young mutton. You would never recite this as ma-RY had A lit-TLE lamb.

It's awkward. Music is the same way.

You don't want to end a phrase which is feminine by giving a good whack to an unaccented note.

I call giving such an unwarranted whack "kicking your grandmother," something you would never do! As it happens, gran-ny is a word with a feminine ending. Therefore, I call them grannies.

Feminine endings may be notated with: (let's use quarter-notes in this discussion)

Or, they may not be notated at all. You are supposed to look at the time signature (!) and note how many stressed notes (also called pulses) there are in each measure and proceed accordingly.

Feminine endings are important because they give the music shape. Especially when music is marked grazioso or something similar; and in Mozart, Clementi, Haydn, and Beethoven, expect lots of feminine endings. Playing feminine endings is the mark of a sensitive player.

Mark those grannies in your music so you don't miss them!

copyright 1998-2001, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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