Don't understand time signatures.

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Rockin John, Oct 3, 2002.

  1. My background...

    I have almost no working knowledge of written notation. However, I could, with time, find my way through a simple score to play it.

    My problem...

    The other day I saw a score written in 2/2 at a given number of beats per minute. I got to wondering why it wasn't written in 4/4 at half the number of beats per minute.

    I then got to wondering how a time signature really works if it has to be coupled with a rate per unit time.

    So what does a time signature mean....err, how does it describe the pace of the music. Then again, does it actually describe the pace of the music or does it have more to do with the "feel" of it?

  2. FunkySpoo

    FunkySpoo Supporting Member

    Feb 6, 2002
    As far as I know, and I don't know very far, the time sig does not describe the tempo. Tempo is usually written as 160 bpm or as Andante or Adagio or something like that. In a 4/4 time sig the top number is how many beats per measure and the bottom number tells you a quarter note gets 1 beat. So 6/8 time is six beats per measure with a quarter note getting two beats. At least that what my kids' beginning piano book says.
  3. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    Top number is how many "beats" there are in a bar.

    Bottom number is what sort of note counts as a "beat."

    4/4 = 4 beats in the bar, with a quarter (1/4) note getting a beat. Count: 1, 2, 3, 4

    2/2 = 2 beats in the bar, with a half (1/2) note getting a beat. Count: 1 + 2 +

    While 2/2 technically could be regarded as equivalent to 4/4, it's faster to count and easier to read (eighth notes replace sixteenths).

    7/8 = 7 beats in a bar, with an eighth (1/8) note getting a beat. Counting "odd" time signatures like this is tricky and depends on what the song demands.

    Little quirk: if the top number is divisible by 3, this may (but not always) indicate what is known as a compound time signature, in which case the number of beats is the top number divided by 3 and the beat itself will comprise a triplet of some sort.

    6/8 = 2 beats in the bar, with eighth (1/8) note triplets counting as a beat. Count: 1 + a, 2 + a

    9/8 = 3 beats in the bar, with eighth (1/8) note triplets counting as a beat. Count: 1 + a, 2 + a, 3 + a
  4. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Well Christopher's explanation covers the technicalities, but I always think of 2/2 as a "march" - it has a different "feel" to 4/4 and is more "urgent" possibly - although any description is going to be abstract really.

    So Samba is written in 2/2 as it is intended as marching music, whereas 4/4 is a walk! ;) Well - as you realise this is not easy to describe, as 4/4 has become so prevalent in Westerm Music.

    Some Greeks have no problems with the concept as in their traditional folk music - each Dance is a different time signature !! :eek: Well - almost!
  5. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    Mea culpa. Hail Fuqua.
  6. Good morning guys and thanks for the advice. To be honest I'm still not sure I understand what you mean.....other than, perhaps, there are no hard and fast rules about time signatures. To some extent, it seems, it doesn't matter as such what the time signature is because all would work, but one might be easier to read than another:-

    A song in 2/2 could be written in 4/4 or 8/8 and all could be correct?

    A song in 3/4 could be written in 6/8 or and could be correct?

    I've never heard of 9/8 before!!!

    Perhaps if someone's got five minutes they could write out a couple of bars at 2/2, 4/4, 8/8. And 3/4, 6/8 to show me how the feel of the music alters with the different signatures....please.


  7. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    Nonono it's not like fractions!

    2/2 and 4/4 are different - although they're the same length, the feel is different. 2/2 implies that the feel is of 2 main beats in the bar. And 3/4 and 6/8 are certainly different! That's because when you have multiples of 3 8th notes, i.e. 3/8, 6/8, 9/8 or 12/8 - compund time is implied - this means that the 8th notes are grouped in 3s. 6/8 is not 3 lots of 2 8th notes, it's 2 lots of 3 8th notes. You can think of 6/8 as being like 2/4, but with 2/4, each beat would be subdivided into 2 8th notes, and with 6/8 each beat is subdivided into 3 8th notes, so you get 2 x 3 8ths notes. Think of an Irish jig - the 8th notes are grouped in 3s, this is compound time.
  8. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    John, I don't think written examples will help necessarily - it is about hearing the "feel".

    So as I said originally - 2/4 is a march - surely you have heard a military band playing a marching tune - the insistent pulse that comes round very quickly?

    Or you must have heard Waltzes - like the "Blue Danube" which are clearly felt in 3/4?

    For 5/4 try to get hold of a recording of "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet - which has a very solid 5/4 vamp on the piano.

    Once you hear something like that, it sticks in your mind more than any "intellectual" appreciation can.
  9. OK Bruce. Not pickin' but you said 2/2 was a march. Do you mean 2/2 or should it have been 2/4?

    Sure, I've heard marches but never realised them being in 2/2. Likewise, I've heard waltzes including Blue Danube: I knew them to be in 3/4. I also know Take Five and knew it to be in 5/4.

    Hear's how I see it:-

    In 2/2 the main pulse comes on beat 1 of 1-2: the bass drummer might beat his drum on that beat. In 3/4 the main pulse comes on beat 1 of 1-2-3 leaving 2 & 3 as lesser pulses. In 5/4...absolutely no idea :eek:

    Surely, though, a march can be written in 4/4: the bass drummer then hits on beats 1 and 3 and the feel's the same as 2/2?

    I'm not really bothered about interlectualising the issue, I'm just trying to get a feel for how time signatures work. When tinkering with my own songs, it would be easy to consider them as being in 4/4 (unless obviously in, say, 3/4). But it might be better considered as 2/2 but I wouldn't know why....or how.

  10. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    A march could be 2/2 or 2/4, the 2 on top being the important bit. A march *could* be written in 4/4 - as far as the notation is concerned, there's really very little difference between 2/2 and 4/4, but if you wrote a march in 4/4 how would the players know to accent 1 and 3, to give it a 1 2 1 2 1 2 feel, rather than a 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 feel? After all, that is the origin of a march - to be played by a a marching band - and most players have 2 feet not 4!

    In 5/4, where the accents are can vary - it's up to the composer (or performer, I suppose, possibly). It's usually grouped as 2 3 or 3 2. Take five is 3 2 - if you listen to it, each bar could be a bar of 3/4 followed by a bar of 2/4. Sometimes you see it written like this 5 (3,2) / 4. For example, I've seen Blue Rondo A La Turk (by Dave Brubeck) written as 9 (2,2,2,3) / 8 - i.e. 9/8, grouped as three 2s followed by a 3. This is one instance where 9/8 doesn't mean compound time.

    In composing your own music, I don't think you really need to think in terms of time sig too much (unless you're gonna write it down). If you come to write it down, *then* you can consider choosing the time signiature best suited to indicate the way you've been feeling the beat naturally anyway. When I compose, I don't consider 4/4 or 2/2 as such, I just consider the feel. I think considering actual time signiatures is something to be done afterwards, when/if you have to notate the music. However if you're going for an irregular time signiature like 5/4, or 7/4, you probably *will* consider the fact that it's in 5/4 or 7/4 or whatever. Having said which, when improvising, I have been known to spontaneosly slip into 7/8 without thinking about it!
  11. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Whoops - sorry it was a slip of the finger - well brain really, as I had just been thinking/writing about "Song for my Father" in another thread, which is a bossa feel in 2/4!! ;)