A rhythmic device based on the ratio 3:2, in which two bars of triple meter are articulated in the manner of three bars in duple meter. In common use this refers to two measures in the time signature 3/4, containing 3 distinct half notes, so that the middle note is tied across the measure line. The word hemiola derives from the Greek “hemiolios”, meaning “one and a half”. It was originally used in music to refer to the frequency ratio 3:2; that is the interval of a perfect fifth.
Hemiola can be an extremely powerful musical tool. It can add drama, tension and interest to a piece of music by temporarily upsetting the metric flow of a piece without actually breaking out of the original meter. An excellent example of hemiola in action is Carl Orff’s 1936 classic “Carmina Burana”, especially its dramatic opening and closing song, ‘O Fortuna. The chorus of doom is singing with a distinct 1-2-3, 1-2-3 count while the bass line is moving along counting 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. Before you think this is an esoteric reference to obscure contemporary classical music, rest assured that you have heard this piece at least once in your lifetime! It has been used in countless movie trailers (notably the “Die Hard” series and even the “South Park” movie), in the soundtracks to “Natural Born Killers” and “Excalibur” and on TV commercials. It was even used as the bed for P. Diddy and Nas’ 1999 hip-hop anthem “Hate Me Now”.