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David Fuller

(Fr.: ‘unequal notes’)

A rhythmic convention according to which certain divisions of the beat move in alternately long and short values, even if they are written equal.

As it existed in France from the mid-16th century to the late 18th the convention of notes inégales was first of all a way of gracing or enlivening passage-work or diminutions in vocal or instrumental music. As styles changed and the figurations born of diminution entered the essential melodic vocabulary, inequality permeated the musical language. Its application was regulated by metre and note values; it always operated within the beat, never distorting the beat itself. (An anomalous instance of alteration of the beat appears in Gigault; see §2.) The degree of inequality (i.e. the ratio between the lengths of the long and short notes of each pair) could vary from the barely perceptible to the equivalent of double dotting, according to the character of the piece and the taste of the performer. Inequality was considered one of the chief resources of expression, and it varied according to expressive needs within the same piece or even within the same passage; where it was felt to be inappropriate it could be abandoned altogether unless explicitly demanded....