Tips & Tricks of the Trade // Music Fundamentals - Time Signatures



Time Signatures - Basics
- 1 September 2016

Introduction
We’re gonna talk about feelings - and no, am not referring to a song by Zonke ;) - but rather the essence of time signatures.
It true that when discussing time signatures you cannot escape the numeracy topic. Yupp!! There’s Mathematics in music - yet for now, Grade 2 proficiency will be good enough.. But the one thing I believe does not receive enough attention is the fact that time signatures tell more than just the counting scheme for the song. I believe they also provide a general ‘feel’ for the song.

This is what I mean:
Have you noticed that most societies with a strong military background tend to produce songs (at least when observing their folk songs) with a 2/2 feel? This is a classic ‘Marching’ beat. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2 and so on.. Do you think soldiers could march to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean?

And listening to a typical 6/8 jam, doesn’t it immediately make you feel for Zimbabwe?
Consider Vuyo Tshuma’s The Journey, it’s characteristically Zimbabwean - thank you to that uncompromising 6/8 feel.

How about a 3/4? Perfect for a waltz isn’t it? Loads of examples here, but one of the first I learnt to play was Bach’s Minuet in G.

And then there’re more interesting time signatures like the 5/8 and the 7/8 which are used EXTENSIVELY in African folk music. BaPedi (Northern Sotho) people in South Africa are world renowned for these fascinating rhythms.
Vusi Nhlapo paid homage to this culture in his composition of Re Humane.

Needless to say that as far as modern music genres are concerned, Jazz employs these irregular time signatures the most. Not limited to jazz though, artists such as Pink Floyd and Sting absolutely loooooove exploiting these time intervals.

Alright, now that we have addressed what we feel, let’s unpack how to read these time signatures.

Common Time

Common Time

The 4/4 is undoubtedly the most common time signature of them all - hence it is anonymously known as the Common time. A ‘C’ is alternatively used to indicate this time interval. If you do not see the indication of the time signature on the music sheet, then you must assume the time to be 4/4.
In the previous lessons on rhythm we used the 4/4 exclusively to explain the concepts. But why do we call it 4/4 instead of just calling it 4? Consider the images (above and below).

Common Time with C

  • The numerator (number on top) describes the number of measures in a Bar.
  • The denominator (number on the bottom) prescribes the Note value for the count.


Therefore, 4/4 means that there are 4 beats in a bar and we count them using Crotchets (Quarter Notes). Simple as that!
Here’s one of the previous example we have used:

Clap(1) Clap(2) Clap(3) Clap(4)
Clap(1) Clap(2) Clap(3) Clap(4)
Clap(1) Clap(2) Clap(3) Clap(4)

and so on…

That indeed is a 4/4 pattern. Each Bar has 4 measures of a Quarter Note each (:

Can you describe what a 2/2 tells us about the rhythm?

The numerator 2 says that each bar has only 2 measures and those measures are Minims (Half Notes). Unsurprisingly, the 2/2 is also called the Half-Time, because it is half as popular as the Common Time - he he. Perhaps not, but rather for the fact that it is simply half of 4/4. Score sheets would alternatively use a ‘slashed C’ to denote this time signature.

Common Time with C And then there’s the 3/4 which basically prescribes 3 beats in a Bar using Crotchets for measure.
So you end up with something like:
Clap(1) Clap(2) Clap(3)
Clap(1) Clap(2) Clap(3)
Clap(1) Clap(2) Clap(3)
and so forth..


That’s the basics of it. Time to compound the issue a little ;)

- written by MegaMidas
Musician at Africappella

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