Music education always & always looking forward.

Creepy Triplets: Symmetrical Compound Meter in The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"

An iconic song in 12/8 time.


Here we've got a basic example of symmetrical compound meter, expressed in this song in a 12/8 time signature. Symmetrical meter means that a measure, or a countable unit of a song, has an even number of beats. Compound means that instead of dividing those beats in a measure into duple, or two beat subdivisions, you'd divide the measure into three subdivisions, or triplets. 

If you click on the tag "symmetrical compound meter",  you'll find many other songs in either 6/8 or 12/8, which are the most common symmetrical compound meter time signatures. Once you *hear* the meter, you'll get a feeling for it. For my money, symmetrical compound meter somewhat has to be felt -- a sort of lilting metric feel -- to be understood. Hence, I always play songs (usually popular ones) in my music classes in order to help kids understand how to perform music in symmetrical compound meter. 

Additionally, this song was highly influenced by the song in Thursday's entry -- another early blues rock song that dealt lyrically with occult themes and benefitted from gutteral vocals. 

Introduction: The Animals formed in Newcastle on Tyne, in England, before moving to London, where they became a force of nature. A quintessential British invasion band, they started their career by emulating recordings of blues acts, among them, Nina Simone, who recorded "House of the Rising Sun" in 1962. After moving to London to capitalize on Beatle-mania, The Animals released their version of "House of the Rising Sun" in 1964. It became a huge hit in both the UK and the US, and is a very early example of a high-charting folk song recording. Like all folk songs, the origins of the song are dubious, the earliest recording of the song is from Appalachian artists Clarence "Tom" Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Although the song may have originated in England, because of the Creole culture and French influence over New Orleans (the setting of the song in The Animals' recording), there is a theory connecting the "rising sun" iconography to King Louis XIV of France. The Animals had a string of other hits in both the UK & US, and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. 

Analysis: The Animals recording is the best known version of the song, and it is published in 12/8 time, punctuated by guitar arpeggios. The 1928 recording by Clarence "Tom" Ashley and Gwen Foster is also in heard in a symmetrical compound meter, but slower. The Animals recording is also recorded in D melodic minor, with alternating raised or natural 6th or 7th scale degrees. 

Considerations for Teaching: Although the feel of the song is dark, Animals' frontman Eric Burdon howls the lyrics in near desperation, and the song discusses a life in ruin, it serves more as a cautionary tale rather than a song to be lyrically avoided. It is a great example of a folk song remade into a popular song, as well as a great analysis of minor keys and symmetrical compound meter.

The above video includes the first known recording of "House of the Rising Sun", although the year listed is not concurrent with the year it was supposedly first recorded. The meter is the same as The Animals' version, but there are fewer subdivided rhythms and The Animals' version certainly takes on a more sinister tone. 

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