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In Search of Good Gymnastic Music

Updated: October 2021

Originally published: American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Division for Girls and Women’s Sports, Gymnastics Guide, 1973, Page 42

As pianist for the 1968 Women’s Gymnastic Olympic Team in Mexico City, I began to question the suitability of the musical arrangements used for gymnastics. After five years of searching and attempting to develop a more suitable style of music with Muriel Grossfeld, I was able to summarize my experience in the arrangement of “Summer of ‘42” which was used for the compulsory floor exercise by the 1972 Women’s Gymnastic Olympic Team.

This musical arrangement had to be flexible enough to serve six totally different gymnasts. The sections from beginning to end included:

  1. an introduction of the theme followed by a quick and strong repetition for tumbling;

  2. a waltz rhythm under the theme leading to a handspring and cartwheel;

  3. a slow but flowing statement of the theme to underline a back walkover;

  4. a strong and firm march rhythm under the theme to emphasize a full turn, continuing with a faster and brighter rhythmic statement of the theme for a leap, and a sudden soft contrast for an arabesque; and finally,

  5. a strong statement of the theme, varied from the introductory statement for tumbling, ending with a lighter thematic statement reminiscent of the beginning.

In essence, the direct, easily understood and yet contrasting musical line enhanced the elements of the compulsory floor exercise, helping to combine each girl’s movements into a smooth presentation.

I would like to share with you some of my observations of the past five years in selecting and arranging music for floor exercise. I hope that such observations will be helpful. I give consideration to four factors in composing gymnastic music.

The Duration Factor

Because of the time limit – maximum 90 seconds – the arrangement should be built around one melody. The style of this melody must enhance the best qualities of the gymnast’s performance and personality for this short period of time. Medleys of tunes are too often a “mish-mash.” If two or more melodies are used, they must be complimentary or related structurally. For example, two strong or similar melodies can cancel each other out; on the other hand, totally unrelated melodies can create confusion.

The Acoustic Factor

Consider that you are in a gymnasium, not a concert hall. With inferior pianos to play, the difficulties of recording and reproducing the piano on tape, noisy audiences, or two or more events going on at the same time, the music must be so melodically and rhythmically clear that it is easily comprehended by the gymnast, the judges, and members of the audience sitting anywhere in the gym. Good “gymnastic melodies” can be found in popular, folk or classical music.

To test the suitability of the music for gymnastics, first listen to the melody only, without the accompaniment. Some melodies may sound well as a piano solo, while others depend on an orchestra, words, or a particular singer. Then consider the strength and clarity of the rhythmic patterns in both the melody and the accompaniment. As yourself, “how well will this melody and rhythm sound on a piano in the gymnasium?”

The Contrast Factor

Contrast in the music helps to overcome the duration and acoustic factors while emphasizing the gymnast’s movements. Contrast can be achieved by changes in register, volume, or rhythm. Try developing your arrangements with the melody in different registers. Melodies played in the higher registers are most audible. Melodies in the middle registers are often more effective with the melody doubled in higher or lower octaves. Use caution with the bass registers. The bass registers can be used to contrast with or support higher register melodies or chords or as a drum effect. Fast notes in a low register are often wasted sound in a gymnasium. The arrangement should provide for changes in volume to emphasize particular movements of the gymnast.

Try developing the arrangement by changing the basic beat in different sections – for example, from a waltz to a march rhythm. Other rhythmic changes such as acceleration or retardation of the melody can create effective contrast. Arrange chords to underline the basic beat structure and significant rhythmic changes.

The Coordination Factor

After considering the duration, acoustics, and contrast factors, consider the problem of combining the music with the gymnasts’ movements. Having selected an appropriate melody for your gymnast, arrange each musical phrase to coordinate with the different sections of movement, particularly the beginnings and endings of such sections. For example, given a musical phrase that starts a tumbling run, the melody should not stop in the middle, but at the end of that series of movements, thus eliminating “fill-in” or irrelevant sounds which only weaken the feeling of continuity. Experiment by slowing, speeding, adding small extensions, shifting accents, or using silence to achieve this result.

As each section of movement changes, so must the music show contrast in register, rhythm, or volume. The total effectiveness of the coordination of the music and movement is determined by the suitability of the melody and style of music in relation to the gymnast, the coherency of the music within itself, and the balance of contrast achieved between the sections of movement and its accompanying music.

Strive for complete musicality, not just a high note for a pose or fast notes for tumbling, but a coherent musical line which might be extended or sustained but never broken or confusing. Such a strong organization and clear identification of line is essential for a quality floor exercise that will motivate the gymnast in daily workouts, be remembered and enjoyed by the gymnast, judge, and audience, and, of course, will achieve a good score.

Patricia Bissell produced a number of piano arrangements and played for several competitions between 1968 and 1974. She also composed and arranged the music for Gymnastics with Muriel Grossfeld for Kimbo Records in 1972.

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