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  Metre (Greek, ‘measure’) is a human artistic development of the instinctive response all warm-blooded creatures have to the pulse. The more regular a rhythm, and the closer it is to the heart-rate, the more we are lulled: if the opening chorus of Bach\'s St Matthew Passion (a 12-minute sequence with a regular, repeated pulse) is performed to coincide exactly with one\'s heart-rate, it has the same effect as stroking a cat or rocking a baby. (Some dentists and surgeons make use of this phenomenon, apparently—the writer has no experience—playing music to their patients rather than using anaesthetics.) Experiments have shown, however, that if the same music is played even two or three beats to the minute faster, it quickens the listener\'s heart-rate and enlivens his or her response. Possibly brain activity is lessened by regular approximation to the heartbeat, and increased by perceived rhythms which are syncopated or out of phase with the heartbeat.

In music—whether the St Matthew Passion or otherwise—composers and performers use this as one of an arsenal of effects. In folk music, for example, the simplest of techniques can produce highly sophisticated results. Against a regular pulse, created by one performer or group of performers, other groups set up repeating patterns which cut across across the beat. The hearer\'s brain is simultaneously lulled by the basic pulse and stimulated by the cross-rhythms and more and more cross-rhythms can be added, to increasingly delirious effect. (In some folk dances, the effect is, precisely, trance.) Similar rhythmic effects are used in all improvised music: Indian and Chinese classical music makes a particularly nuanced use of rhythm, to the point where a single tiny change can electrify an audience. In the West, jazz and minimalist music both use variants of these techniques: jazz by superimposing complex rhythms on a regular underlying pulse, and minimalist music by introducing minute rhythmic variations to what appears at first to be an unvarying continuum of sound.

In literature, still another element is added: the sound of the language, actually heard (as in plays) or in the mind\'s ear as we read each page. Metre, in prose or verse, consists of sequences of recognizable rhythmic patterns which conform with or syncopate against the natural stresses of the words. In some languages (ancient Greek and Japanese, for example), sounds and syllables also have actual length: in Greek a ‘short’ vowel-sound (o-mikron, for example) is calculated as just over one-third as long as the corresponding ‘long’ vowel (o-mega, for example). This means that metrical patterns can be devised which are mathematical: the sounds in a dactyl (DAH-da-da), for example, are in the approximate ratio 8:3:3 (usually simplified in practice to 2:1:1 or 9:3:3). Since the lengths of all syllables are known, a sequence of words can be organized into hugely complicated rhythmic patterns. Over the years, such patterns acquired specific emotional or ritual associations, allowing the artist a subtlety of allusion and overtone hard for non-native speakers to appreciate. (In both classical Greek tragedy and Japanese Noh plays, for example, metrical nuance is a major constructional resource.)

In Eastern and Middle Eastern literature, especially that written in languages which have been comparatively stable for millennia (such as Arabic, Chinese or ancient Persian), metrical procedures are often traditional and of extreme antiquity; in a sense, they are organic and innate. In the West, by contrast, where languages tend to be newer, metre is often based on adaptations of ancient Greek or Latin structures to native sounds; they are artificial and imposed. (A similar generalization could be made about metrical patterns in music.) What the effects on metre will be of the current plurality of world artistic experience, of creative catholicity, is impossible to predict. KMcL



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