Clapping in Music

by David Bruce

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In the first of a new series, composer David Bruce and founder discusses the uses of clapping in classical, popular and traditional music. This article accompanies the video show below. Subscribe to David's YouTube Channel
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In the Classical Music world, clapping in music has always been something of an embarrassment. And I'm not just talking about the endless debates that take place over whether or not to clap between movements. Until recently at least, the only place the Classical world really welcomes clapping is on New Years Day in Vienna - The Radetsky March

Radetsky March

Clapping in popular music has a more chequered history, coming in and out of fashion. Shirley Ellis's The Clapping Song in 1965 and the use of clapping in Motown and Disco meant clapping maintained a healthy popularity throughout the 60s and 70s. Then it fell out of fashion, but according to cuepointmusic has seen a recent resurrgance in the 21st century,with the amount of clapping in songs increasing by 31% from 2009-2016 .

Clapping in popular music basically serves two pretty straight forward functions. One is its use as a simple form of percussion, often replacing the snare drum. But there's also something about clapping that (if you're willing to overlook a certain degree of cheesyness) can add a sense of joy and happiness. This feel-good factor means clapping CAN be used as a way of allowing people to bond, to connect with each other, or even to connecting with higher powers, as it is in gospel music ar Hindu Bhajan singing

There are some traditions however where clapping is integral to the musical tradition and the most famous of these of course is flamenco music.

Palmas is the practise of clapping in flamenco, and being a palmeros or a palmistas is actually a profession. Different flamenco forms are called palos. Here is a diagram detailing the main palos and the relationship between them.

Palmeros help create the complex pattens of various Palos like the Buleria by emphasizing different beats of a cycle. A soft clapping style or Palmas Sordas is used to allow an instrumental passage to come through. And the much louder Palmas Fuertes is used to bring the rhythm into the foreground.

The number of claps per minute now starts to go way up, because of a technique known in flamenco as Contratiempo, where two musicians perform interlocking claps, to create a much faster overall clapping tempo.

A very similar effect, but much less well-known clapping effect can also be seen in Fedjeri music - a tradition of vocal music practicsed by the pearl divers in Eastern Arabia's coastal Gulf states, especially Bahrain and Kuwait. The speeds now are hitting an impressive 480 beats per minute.

As classical music has gradually opened itself up to the the influence of these kinds of world music traditions, clapping has become more frequent in contemporary classical music. My own attempt, in the third movement of a piece called Cut the Rug was written for Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and featured on their album 'A Playlist without Borders'. You can here it on one of these links:

Amazon | Spotify | iTunes

But by far the most famous contemporary piece is Steve Reich's 1972 piece Clapping Music, which was apparently inspired by a trip to a Brussel's flamenco bar while on tour with his band.

You can see the flamenco influence in the way two performers create complex interlocking patterns. But Reich was actually far more influenced by bell patterns of Ghanaian music, that he learned about in the book Studies in African Music by A.M. Jones, as well as the idea of phasing, where one pattern gradually slips out of phase with another.

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