Time Signatures – Bass for Beginners # 17

Text by Dan Lasley, MP3s by Paul Ortiz

A while back, I was involved in a discussion where someone asked “What’s the difference between 3 / 4 and 6 / 8 time?” Then there was the follow-up question: “Well, since you play eighth notes faster than quarter notes, doesn’t it all work out the same?” Soon after this, I was listening to “Ordinary Day” from my daughter’s new Vanessa Carlton CD, and realized that I was pretty sure that it was in 12 / 8 time, and I later confirmed it from the sheet music. My daughter wanted to know how I figured it out.

All this suggested that there was a lesson to be written from these events. I realize that this is not really a bass guitar topic, but the bass line gives some important clues sometimes. As always, this is geared toward beginners; composers and music majors may find fault in the details, but these guidelines work for me.

First, let’s define some terms. I’m going to assume that you have seen real sheet music (not TAB) sometime recently. Way back in musical history, there was a lot of music that was written with four beats per measure, so the simplest note type was called a “quarter note” – it’s just a fat dot with a stick, and you can forget the stick if you want.

Later, some sick person created the waltz, which had three beats per measure. Now they could have called the fat dots “a-third” notes, but they didn’t. So a complete measure in 3 / 4 time is only 75% full. Confused? Me, too. It gets worse, because a “whole note” (open circle, no stick) can’t be used in 3 / 4 time, as it represents four beats, which is greater than the whole measure.

So lets simplify. Let’s just say that a quarter note is a “beat note”. So a 4 / 4 song has four beats and a 3 / 4 song has three beats. That’s easy.

OK, now back to 6 / 8 time. Is the eighth note half of a quarter note? Do you play them twice as fast? Here again, I’m not sure how this happened historically (“Damn it, Jim, I’m a musician, not a historian!”), but somebody realized that they wanted to create the triplet feel of a waltz, but combine it with the dynamics and transitions available in 4 / 4 time, so they realized that they needed more notes, and elected to use eighth notes.

So to review, there are two numbers in a time signature. The top number is the number of beats per measure, and the bottom number is the type of note that represents one beat.

Also, the tempo of a song determines whether it is fast or slow, not the type of “beat note”. The tempo is set in “beats per minute”, whether they are quarter notes or eighth notes. In a sense, a 6 / 8 song is twice as slow than 3 / 4 because it takes twice as long to play the six beats in a measure.

Now, back to the music. In normal 4 / 4 pop-rock, the drummer plays kick-snare-kick-snare, and the bassist might play root-5th-root-5th (I – V – I – V). The trick is that most often, the chord changes will occur on the measure boundaries, and the transitions will occur from the fourth beat leading up to the first beat of the next measure.

Oh by the way, I asked Paul Ortiz to make some “simple” MP3s to illustrate this process, but as you can hear, Paul only does high quality stuff.

4/4 chart with drum annotations

In a standard 3 / 4 waltz, you might think of it as kick-hhat-hhat//kick-hhat-hhat (hhat=high hat cymbal), and the bass transitions would be after the third beat leading into the first of the next measure.

3/4 time chart

Now if we mush these two together, you might end up with six or twelve beats. As noted above, for arbitrary reasons, the “beat note” is usually an eighth note. 6 / 8 time would sound like kick-hhat-hhat-snare-hhat-hhat// kick-hhat-hhat-snare-hhat-hhat. The song “Lights” by Journey (“When the Lights… go down… in the city”) is a perfect example of 6 / 8 time, and obviously it’s not faster despite the eighth notes.

6/8 chart

So back to the Vanessa Carlton tune…I was listening to this and I quickly figured it was in 6 / 8 time. But then I listened a little longer and I noticed that there was never a transition or chord change after the six beat, but only after the twelfth beat.

12/8 Time chart

So there you have it. In order to figure out what the time signature is, you need to listen to both the drums and the bass/guitar/chord changes.

Here is a short list of pop/rock songs that are not in 4 / 4 time:

3 / 4 Time:
Piano Man – Billy Joel

6 / 8 Time:
Color My World – Chicago
Lights – Journey

12 / 8 Time:
Ordinary Day – Vanessa Carlton

Strange Time Signatures:

5 / 4:
Take Five – Dave Brubek

Money – Pink Floyd.