Tag Archives: Counting (music)

Introduction to Music, Part 6 (Time Signatures)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Time Signatures and Counting

Time Signatures

Up until now we’ve talked about each measure having 4 beats and the quarter note equaling one beat. Can we have 20 beats in a measure? Can the 8th note equal one beat? Yes, to both questions. But what tells us how to know this?

Time signatures do.

A time signature tells us how many beats are in a measure and what type of note equals one beat. The time signature is the first thing that occurs (from left to right) after the clef. It only happens at the start of a piece of music unless there is a change to the time signature. (You may also see the term ‘meter’ used instead of time signature). The most common time signature is 4/4 time. This means that there are 4 beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat. Click on the image to see the full size, easier to read version.

The top number of a time signature tells how many beats there are in a measure. The bottom number tells you what type of note gets the beat. The top number can be anything from 1 to infinity. The bottom number tells you what type of note gets the beat. For the bottom number, the way I look at is this: take just the bottom number and put a 1 above it and read it as a fraction. Thus for 4/4 time, make it 1/4 and say it – “quarter.” That’s the type of note that gets the beat. For 3/8 time, 3 beats in a measure, then 1/8 = “eight” so the eight note gets the beat. The bottom number can be 1 or any multiple of 2.

Other time signatures you will run across include: 2/4, 3/4, 6/4, 2/2, 3/2, 3/8, 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8. Those are the more common time signatures. I’ve seen 1/1 (one whole note per measure) but only for a measure or two, and in the music of J.S. Bach, the great 18th century organist and composer, 16/32, 16 beats in a measure and the 32nd note (twice as fast as the 16th) gets one beat.

While it is true that some time signatures are more often used in faster music or slower music, the time signature itself does not say anything whatsoever about the speed of the music. Yes, 2/2 time, which looks just like 4/4 time, is often faster, it isn’t always. What determines the speed of a piece of music is the tempo marking. See below.

The numbers show how you can count the different time signatures. See how in 6/8 time you count the eighth note as one and the quarter note gets 2 beats? How about 2/2 time? In it, the quarter note is 1/2 a beat long while the whole note is only 2 beats long. In time signatures with a 2 or 4 on the bottom, it is typical to divide the subdivisions into groups of two or four. You’ll see examples of that in future articles. In time signatures with 8 or 16 on the bottom, it is more typical to group the subdivisions into groups of 3. See the horizontal line joining the notes? That is what is known as a beam. When two eight notes are joined together, instead of using a flag, we use the beam. Since a 16th note has two flags, when joined together, we use 2 beams.

Tempo is the speed of a piece of music. Just above the time signature at the beginning of the music, a composer may indicated the speed they want the music performed at. This is the tempo marking. That, and only that, determines how fast a piece of music is. A time signature simply tells us how many beats are in a measure and what type of note gets the beat, not how fast to play.

I wonder what that “C” at the end of the last line of music means? (next time)

If you’re reading this close to when it is posted, no new posts for a few weeks so I can enjoy the Christmas holiday season.

Next time: Introduction to Symbols

Introduction to Music, Part 5 (Rhythm)

Introduction to Music

for those wanting to become musicans, or improve their musicianship

Measures and rhythm

Rhythm

Rhythm is the relationship of note values to one another and their placement in a measure. A measure is the space between the two bar lines. We are measuring beats. If we say that a 1/4 note is one beat long, then in the above example, each measure adds up to 4 beats. Remember that a 1/2 note is twice as long as a 1/4, thus equaling two beats. It is important to keep in mind as you learn to play or sing that you keep each similar note value the same length throughout the piece of music. For example, no matter where in the music you are, a 1/4 note will take up the same amount of time as any other 1/4 note.

As you can see a few notes have dots after the notehead. We describe these as dotted-[whatever the note value of the note is]. A 1/4 note with a dot is called a ‘dotted quarter’. Memorize this saying: A dot increases the length of a note by half its value. That’s a mouthful.

Take the dotted half-note as an example. A 1/2 note is 2 beats long. Half of 2 is 1. So, a dotted half-note is 2+1 or 3 beats long. A dotted-quarter note is equal to one plus a half-beat. Since an 1/8 note is half the value of a 1/4, an 1/8 note is half a beat long. So, a dotted-quarter note is equal to a quarter plus an eight or 1 + .5 or 1.5 (1 and-a-half) beats long. An 1/8 note almost always follows a dotted-quarter note. Any note value can be dotted.

Review the example above and use the numbers to help identify the note values. A dash between numbers indicates the note lasts for that many beats. In order to count 1/8 and 1/16 notes, we need to subdivide the beat into smaller parts. For 1/8 notes, the first of the two 1/8 notes is always the beat’s number. The 2nd half is ‘&’, said ‘and.’ For 1/16 notes, we subdivide the beat into 4 parts. The first is always the number of the beat, the 2nd is ‘e’, the 3rd is ‘&’ and the 4th is ‘a’ (said ‘uh’).

(Note that the next to last measure in the bass clef has a different rhythm than the treble clef. It is held for four beats. This is common in piano music and scores. If you count four beats per measure, focusing on the treble clef part, then you just hold down, if you were playing piano, the bass clef note for four beats).

Try clapping the examples. Whenever there is a dash between numbers, clap the first number, but keep the hands together until the dashes end. Keep the counting steady. You can count out loud, or better yet, use a metronome – there are many online sources for computer based metronomes – or the second hand of a watch or clock to keep the beat steady. The next section will have more on counting.

Next time: Time signatures and counting