Time Signatures

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# Time Signatures

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(@maxrumble)
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Joined: 18 years ago
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Topic starter

Well I have decided to look at theory again!

Using 3/4 time as an example. - My understanding - Three beats per measure, each beat a quarter note.

1. Since quarter notes do not have an absolute time duration, why would this not be written as 3/3 time? MY understanding is that the length of time a quarter note is held is arbitrary anyway.
2. Would it sound any different if it was written as 3/3?
3. Would it have consequences when playing with other instruments?

Cheers,

Max

(@noteboat)
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Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4921

1. Because we don't have a 1/3 note. But we could write it as 3/2 time (using a half note) or as 3/8 time (using an eighth note).

2. In theory, it wouldn't sound any different using a different note for the beat. But in practice it might - there's no logical reason 3/8 time marked Allegro should be played any faster than 3/4 time marked Allegro... but most conductors will beat time a bit faster for shorter note values. So 3/8 often ends up being faster than 3/4 for psychological reasons.

3. No.

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(@maxrumble)
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Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 441
Topic starter

Thanks Tom

Your answers are clear and concise as always. The psycological aspect makes sense.

I should have a re-read of your book, its been a while.

Cheers,

Max

(@number6)
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Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 152

Remember, when you're reading a time signature, the top number lists the number of beats to a bar. The bottom number tells you which note is given one beat.* Quarter notes are signified by 4 since there are four quarters to a whole. Half notes are signified by a 2, since there are two halves to a whole. Eigth notes and sixteenth notes are pretty obvious :)

*If the top number is divisable by 3, such as in 6/8 9/8 or 12/8 time, it's in what's known as compound time, which is a bit different.

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(@scrybe)
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actually, since this thread makes it appropriate......what is the difference between 3/4 time and 6/8 time?

I had this one explained to me as "uh....well......3/4 is a bit more stilted, and 6/8 kinda flows more". Lol, I can generally tell the difference okay when I', listening, but really, what is the theoretical difference? same goes for 6/4 and 6/8 time. I'm pretty sure there was a bit of a debate with Miles Davis' All Blues on Kind of Blue as to which time signature its actually in, so I'm curious to hear people's responses to this one.

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(@noteboat)
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3/4 is triple-simple meter: three beats per measure, each of which divides into two beat divisions... ONE-and-Two-and-Three-and.

6/8 is duple-compound meter: two beats per measure, each of which has three divisions... ONE-trip-let-Two-trip-let.

Only they're not actually triplets - "triplet" is the name for a borrowed division, a temporary division of a beat into three parts when it would normally divide into two. (The reverse, "duplets", is a temporary division of a beat into two parts when it would normally divide into three) But it's still easy to count compound beats using the "trip-let" syllables :)

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(@noteboat)
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Oh, and as far as the Miles Davis 6/4 vs 6/8, there's no difference. The pulses of music establish a meter; a time signature represents that meter, but it's not a 1:1 ratio - there are lots of ways to write a single meter, and a time signature doesn't always give you all the information you need.

In general, if the top number is 6, 9, 12 or 15 it's compound time (three divisions per beat). If it's 2, 3, 4, or 5, it's simple time (two divisions per beat). Anything else is "odd meter". But with more unusual time signatures, a composer needs to communicate more information through accent marks.

That's because beats, like beat divisions, happen in twos and threes. 4/4 time is ONE-two-THREE-four (two metric patterns of one stressed and one unstressed beat); 5/4 time is one pair of two beats, and one pair of three - but you don't know if it's ONE-two-THREE-four-five or ONE-two-three-FOUR-five without more help from the composer.

Sometimes a composer will use an unconventional time signature, like 8/8, to show that the music isn't accented the way you're used to feeling it... it might be ONE-and-TWO-and-three-AND-four-and, or ONE-and-two-AND-three-AND-four-and... but you still need those accent marks (or eighth note beams - they always happen in metric units) to show you how it should be played.

Some folks have tried clearer ways - when I was in college I remember seeing a piece (I think by Xenakis) with a time signature of a number over a note - the number was the beats per measure, the note was the beat unit - but it hasn't caught on. Other folks have tried less clear ways... there's a piece by Ives in 4-1/2 over 4 time. I've heard that when he conducted it, he insisted on amateur musicians - the pros would count it and get lost; the less trained would simply "feel" it and do a better job!

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(@scrybe)
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props Noteboat, that's cleared things up a bunch, as usual. though the pieces you mentioned remind me of seeing a performance of Messiaen's Quator Pour Le Temps Du Fin back in school (we had to study the piece and, fortunately, the local uni put on a performance of it). As some movements have really, um, unconventional time signatures and rhythms, you could clearly see that in some places, the muso's were keenly watching each others hand movements for signals on where they were in the piece.

Ra Er Ga.

Ninjazz have SuperChops.

http://www.blipfoto.com/Scrybe