Beaters, Phrasers, and Noters



excerpt from “Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo” by Jeff Todd Titon:

The old-time melody usually comes to the player’s consciousness initially in one of three ways: beats, phrases, or notes. This is true for fiddlers as well as for banjo players learning a tune while it is being played. Based on my conversations with players, and also on my own experience, I divide musicians into “beaters,” “phrasers”, and “noters.”

To the beater, the tune presents itself to consciousness as a formal structure, at first in large chunks rather than differentiated into phrases and notes. The beater tries to resolve this undifferentiated structure by dividing it into its largest sections or parts–usually two, but sometimes three and occasionally four; and then how long each part is; and then whether the tune’s structure is regular or “crooked” (that is, irregular). Regularity means that the melody is played over a standard number of beats, usually sixteen, before either repeating or moving on to the next section. To figure this out, the “beater” begins to count the beats as they go by, often using the fingers to count instead of playing; and then with this framework in mind, proceeds to try to grasp the melody itself in the hands and fingers as it proceeds, either as a phraser or as a noter. A “beater” feels more comfortable with a regular tune than with a crooked one, and learns it more quickly.

A “phraser” does not count beats. Instead, the tune reveals itself to consciousness one melodic phrase (a phrase generally runs through one or two beats) at a time, as the musician compares these phrases to others he or she may have heard before and stored somewhere in a phrase-memory (both pitch and rhythm) that is both in the brain and, seemingly, in the hands and fingers. The rhythmic figures are fewer in number and often predominate. Tentatively at first, the phraser will bring out these remembered melodic phrases or something like them on the banjo, and then proceed to test them against the phrases that are heard as the melody goes by. Gradually the phrases combine and come more and more to resemble the fiddler’s melody, but they retain the character of a banjo realization. At some point the phraser also becomes a noter and adjusts a note here and there to get a more satisfying rendition. Usually the phraser is barely aware of whether the tune is regular or crooked; it is in the mind primarily as a sequence of phrases.

A “noter” does not count beats and does not hear the melody in phrases at first. What presents itself to the noter’s consciousness is an unphrased skeletal outline of the melody, consisting chiefly of stressed notes that come at particular points in tune–the downbeat notes, and not all of these, either. The player finds these on the banjo, and often plays them in bumm-diddy style, the bumm bringing out the stressed note on the downbeat. Sometimes the noter also encases these in chordal or part-chordal formations with the right hand, to fill out the sound. Gradually, the noter finds more of the melodic core and rhythmic figures, some on weak beats and some on offbeats. Certain tones and tone combinations turn out to be easy to play, others more difficult, and a few impossible–these latter are left alone. Licks emerge from the noter’s fingers through a kind of rhythmic hand-and-finger memory that sets the melody in a banjo-like way. The noter tends to accentuate the downbeat melody notes that coincide with the fiddler’s melody.


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