More on Time Signatures

I had a sneaky feeling that my last post here was a bit of a cheat, but I felt confident that it was truth to say I wouldn't be adding value to the internet by writing about what has already clearly been explained online.  The post that I linked you to does not go into much detail at all regarding time signatures, though, and this is a concept all musicians, aspiring or established, need to understand.

By the way, I wasn't going to recommend any one book on basic music theory on this blog, as I found that I had to read quite a lot of books to get a good picture of the subject.   It seemed that I learned lots from each author whose book I read, but not enough from each to fully understand.

Maybe I'm just slow; it's true I'm no youngster and I didn't learn to play a note of music until I was well past thirty.  If I had learned music when I was younger, I am sure I would have more quickly caught on.  But if I can learn to do it, anyone can; I'm only sorry I didn't take on the task sooner.

But I read that lot of theory books before I read the For Dummies Guide to the subject.  By the time I found Music Theory For Dummies at another library, I had already built up a pretty good understanding of the subject.  So while I can't say for sure whether I would have found it sufficient had I been a dummy on the subject, it really does seem to be the most thorough and clear volume I have seen.  As I said, I really am a fan of these guides for musical subjects.

Let's take a look at this page from Music Theory for Dummies, as it tells a little more about time signatures.  Go read their handy cheat sheet, especially the section labeled, Understanding Simple and Compound Time Signatures.

I think a little more info will be helpful, so I'll write more about this after all:

Music in 4/4 time is so abundant that it is referred to as "common time," and is often indicated with a C rather than the 4/4 fraction at the beginning of some pieces of music.  Common time is counted by four when using quarter notes. "one-two-three-four."

Rhythmic variations of this are created by the placement of notes of different values within a bar. If a measure used eight eighth notes, you would count it like "one-and-two-and-three-and-four and."  A bar or measure might contain any number of different combinations of notes, so you might count bars like "one-two-and-three-four-and," if that measure contained a quarter note followed by two eighth notes, then another quarter note followed by two eighth notes, for example.  Or "one-and-two-three-and-four" when the bar looks like this.

So the beat can be divided in any number of ways, but in 4/4 time,  the total value of each bar will add up to four quarter notes.

Cut time is sometimes notated like this:

It is simply 2/4 time, with only 2 beats in each measure.  You would count this as "One-two" or "One-and-two-and."  Tango and ragtime music are traditionally written in cut time, along with much bluegrass and classical music.  This time signature can easily be confused with 4/4 and sometimes it takes careful listening to identify whether a song is written in 2/4 "cut" time or 4/4"common" time.

Another common time signature is 3/4, or Waltz, time.

 You count this as "one-two-three," or "one-and-two-and-three-and," or more commonly, "one-two-and-three-and," or some other variation of the measure divided into three beats.  Well known songs in 3/4 time run the gamut from: Greensleeves, The Rainbow Connection, Beautiful Brown Eyes, My Favorite Things (from the Sound of Music), What's New Pussycat, to What the World Needs Now is Love, Take it to the Limit, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, most of Kiss from a Rose, and some say Manic Depression by Jimi Hendrix, although I can't say agree with that one!   More recent songs have been released in 3/4 time by such diverse artists as: Beirut, Muse, Kanye West, Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, Ben Folds Five, Radiohead, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, and many more, so this time signature is certainly relevant in music of all types, including today's tunes. 

All these time signatures- 4/4 or common time, 3/4 or waltz time, and 2/4 or cut time, are simple time signatures.

Simple time does not have to sound simple.  Music in simple time can sound rhythmically complex by syncopation.  This happens both in the way the beats are divided (the note values) and by the musical choices in accompaniment and arrangement.  We'll likely talk more about ways to syncopate rhythms on both guitar and ukulele, and harmonica too, later here.

In compound time signatures the beat is divided into thirds rather than divided into two as in simple time signatures.  Here is a pretty good page that explains compound time in some detail.  The best way to get a feel for compound time is to listen to songs recorded in these time signatures. 
The most common compound time signature may be 6/8 time.  Tons of songs have been recorded in this; here is a short list for your listening pleasure: A New Day Yesterday, Jethro Tull; Boys and Girls, and Heartbreaker, by Alabama Shakes; Dreaming, Cream; Heart of Stone, I Got the Blues,and You Can Make It If You Try, by the Rolling Stones; I'm Gonna Crawl, and Since I Been Lovin You, by Led Zeppelin; Never Alone, Jeff Beck; Norwegian Wood, the Beatles; Porcelain, RHCP; Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon; Turn Me On, Norah Jones; We Are the Champions, Queen; What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong; When A Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge; and Welcome, by the Who; along with a great many more.
Many songs switch between different time signatures and many have been recorded in "Odd" time signatures, which are neither divisible by two or three.  Pink Floyd's song Money is the best example of this that came to my mind.  I found this great list cataloging quite a few of these songs in odd time signatures.

It is nice to be familiar with various time signatures, but the vast majority of songs are in one of the simple time signatures.  Because they are simple, they are easy to play (in general).  Try learning The Rainbow Connection, Beautiful Brown Eyes, or a few or several songs in 3/4 time and any of thousands of rock songs in 4/4 time.   Practicing your counting (and using a metronome to steady train your timing) is a fundamental method of developing rhythm as a musician.  Once you do this, then learn some songs in compound or odd time signatures too.

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