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> Time 101, Part 2 - Time Signatures
Andrew Cockburn
post Mar 18 2007, 06:56 PM
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Time 101 Part II


Hello again! In the first lesson of this series we focused on individual notes and the different lengths they could be time-wise. Now we can use this knowledge to take a step back and understand how timing for a whole song works, based on the concepts we discussed. If you are reading this part of the lesson first, I suggest you go back and review part 1, which is here.

Structure and Bars or Measures

The basic unit of time from the point of view of a song is the bar or measure (two terms for the same thing). A bar is a regular collection of notes, each of the same duration in terms of the number of notes it contains. The duration of a bar in note terms is defined at the beginning of the song in the time signature (more of which later) and each bar is assumed to contain the same number of notes unless the time signature is explicitly changed.

Generally speaking, significant things happen at the beginning of bars such as chord changes, bass drum hits and many other things. That’s not to say that these things don’t happen in many other places, rather, the bar structure is designed so that it reflects the overall rhythmic layout of the song, and a lot of these events naturally fall on the beginning and end of bars.

Given that we can write down the timing of individual notes why do we actually need bars? Well, I guess technically we don’t – you could write an entire song without bars but it would be very confusing. So among other things, breaking a song down into bars gives you an easy way of figuring out where in the song you are – it’s a lot easier to go to bar 15 than to note 127 …

Another reason for bars is that as mentioned above, the bar is the basic unit of a time signature. So if your song demands a quick (even 1 bar) change in time signature, you need to break those notes into a separate bar with its own time signature, and then have a new time signature when you want to revert back. If you didn’t do this, the feel of the song would get out of step. So a bar is also the minimal unit of time signatures.

So now we understand note durations, and that we break down songs into bars to keep things manageable – let’s look at time signatures.

Time Signatures

So what is a time signature? It is a way of describing to someone reading the music how the overall rhythm of the song fits together. If you compare say a Straussian Waltz to the average Metallica song, they sound very different. Leaving aside the obvious differences in instrumentation, the rhythmic feel of the song is also very different. This is because a waltz is in 3/4 time, and the average Metallica song is in 4/4. 3/4 and 4/4 are both examples of time signatures and they describe exactly when beats are emphasized in a song, and how long we go between down beats (or main beats). Changing a time signature can make a huge change to the mood and feel of a song.

Okay, now let’s take a look at one:

Attached Image

The time signature is the two numbers (both the number 4) stacked one on top of the other. This may look a bit like a fraction, but in this case, both numbers mean a different thing. When we say 4/4 or 3/4 they are pronounced as two numbers – “Four four”, or “Three four”. The top number refers to the number of beats in a bar. The bottom number tells us the type of beats that represent the timing. (It is important, that you remain aware that the type of note is just a representation; when you go on to learn topics like the speed (velocity) of music. Time signatures do not tell you how fast a piece of music should be played).

Right, so the time signature above, the 4 on top tells us that there are 4 beats in a bar. The bottom 4 (If we look at the list from the note tree, tells us that those notes are crotchets, or quarter notes. So there are 4 quarter notes in a bar. In most songs in 4/4, you can expect to find a bass drum kick on beats 1 and 3, and a snare hit on beats 2 and 4 – different time signatures would capture the feel differently and you would get corresponding drum hits on different beats of the bar.

If the time signature showed 3/4 time, you would have 3 beats in the bar, all crotchets. It would look like this:

Attached Image

If the time signature showed 2/4 time, you would have 2 beats in the bar, all crotchets, and it would look like bar this:

Attached Image

Okay so far? Theory is not so difficult really smile.gif


Simple or Compound

Right, now it's time to get into the interesting stuff. There was a specific reason why I've shown you the three bars I have, as these are the basic building blocks of music. The 4/4 bar is also known as simple quadruple (quadruple meaning that there are 4 beats in the bar. The 3/4 bar is also known as simple triple time, (triple meaning.. well I think you can guess what triple means ).

So why are these times simple?

It's all about how we split the notes up. Here is a musical score with a selection of time signatures – don’t try an play this, you’ll go blind wink.gif

Attached Image

Bars 1 - 3 show us the time signatures we have already discussed in action. Now, look at bar 4. It actually has the same note durations as bar 2, adding up to a total of 3 quarter notes, but now instead of playing 1 quarter note on each beat, we are now trying to cram two eighth notes into every beat. (Two notes, 3 beats, that's six notes altogether by my reckoning.)

Notice how they are grouped. In pairs. If the beats are to be divided rhythmically by splitting into halves, it's called simple time. The simple time signatures are ones like 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4.

Compound time signatures

So we've now got a bar of music, with 6 eighth notes in it. The rhythm would be “1 and 2 and 3 and” ...

There is however, a time signature, called 6/8. So isn't this the same thing? Indeed wouldn't this be a better choice? Look at bar 5. There are still 6 eighth notes, but they are grouped in threes. Brilliant for those 3 note per string scales eh? So that's it. If the beats are divided rhythmically by splitting into thirds, it's called compound time. I've provided the equivalent compound times to the ones in the first section. They are 6/8. 9/8, and 12/8. You will note that we are using dotted crotchets here – refer back to part one if you have forgotten what the dot means!

That’s it for part 2 of the lesson. In part 3 we are going to look at Odd time signatures!


Significant parts of this lesson were taken and edited with permission from Tank’s Time Signature lesson here – Thanks Tank!


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mattacuk
post Apr 26 2007, 05:03 PM
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Great Work, very easy to understand. This is helping me to understand timeing no end when looking at musical notation.

This post has been edited by Andrew Cockburn: May 11 2007, 11:04 PM


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Kaneda
post May 11 2007, 10:46 PM
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Probably the most well known example of compound time vs. simple time, when it comes to 6/8 vs. 3/4... Saw it mentioned a few times on the web, my teacher in music theory mentioned it, and I've always used it when explaining the difference... is "America" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" (can't think of an example in rock off the top of my head, sorry), whose time signature actually is 6/8 - 3/4 - both at once smile.gif

Or rather, first bar is 6/8, then the next is 3/4, then 6/8, then 3/4 etc. And the singing voice follows what Andrew described:

CODE
I like to BE in a- | ME- ri- ca | O k by ME in a- | ME- ri- ca | ...

1 2    3  4  5  6  | 1   2   3  | 1 2 3  4  5  6  | 1   2   3  | etc.

6/8                | 3/4        | 6/8             | 3/4        | etc.


(made the accented notes capital letters)

In a score or sheet music, rather than writing out a new time signature for each bar, you write both time signatures right after each other on the first bar.

There you have it, an annoying song to teach you the difference between compound and simple time - I like Bernstein, just not that song wink.gif. Actually, one could do worse than listen to something as "old fashioned" as West Side Story for great rhythmic ideas tongue.gif

Plus, it has that whole tritonus "devil in music" theme going on, which any metal listener knows and loves. biggrin.gif

And, great work on the lesson, Andrew - and Tank smile.gif

This post has been edited by Kaneda: May 11 2007, 10:55 PM
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Andrew Cockburn
post May 11 2007, 11:03 PM
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Great example Kaneda, thanks!

Damn, now I have "I like to be in America" going around in my head ... blink.gif


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shellshock1911
post Jan 2 2008, 12:42 AM
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I don't understand how you count complex meter. Do I need a complex metronome? Mine only does quarter note ticks.

Anyway yea. People say to count triplets as 1 & ah 2 & ah, etc. And then say the same thing about counting complex time. However 3 eight notes is not the same as an eight-note triplet. Eight-note triplet is 3 beats in 1 quarter note. Complex time is 3 beats in 1 dotted quarter note, so yea, I just don't get how they are related or even the same or how to count complex or what.


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Andrew Cockburn
post Jan 2 2008, 02:16 AM
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QUOTE (shellshock1911 @ Jan 1 2008, 06:42 PM) *
I don't understand how you count complex meter. Do I need a complex metronome? Mine only does quarter note ticks.

Anyway yea. People say to count triplets as 1 & ah 2 & ah, etc. And then say the same thing about counting complex time. However 3 eight notes is not the same as an eight-note triplet. Eight-note triplet is 3 beats in 1 quarter note. Complex time is 3 beats in 1 dotted quarter note, so yea, I just don't get how they are related or even the same or how to count complex or what.


The key here is that the metronome DOESN't do quarter note ticks, it just does ticks ... so if there are three 8th note ticks in a bar, make every tick of your metronome an 8th note, and every third one is a bar - you can break any complex time down like that - at the end of the day its only fractions.


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shellshock1911
post Jan 2 2008, 04:06 AM
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QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Jan 2 2008, 02:16 AM) *
The key here is that the metronome DOESN't do quarter note ticks, it just does ticks ... so if there are three 8th note ticks in a bar, make every tick of your metronome an 8th note, and every third one is a bar - you can break any complex time down like that - at the end of the day its only fractions.


Ah I see thx for clearing it up. So it would still be 1 & ah right, just have one syllable per tick?


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Andrew Cockburn
post Jan 2 2008, 01:39 PM
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QUOTE (shellshock1911 @ Jan 1 2008, 10:06 PM) *
Ah I see thx for clearing it up. So it would still be 1 & ah right, just have one syllable per tick?


1 2 3 would work just as well, or pear apple dog, or anything else, the numbers aren;t magic, they just need to repeat in the correct number of beats.


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