Time Signature Philosophy

The reset feeling...

The theory behind time signatures already exists on the internet in both article and video form; it is all theoretically correct and many of the presentations of it are structured, clear and beneficial, so why would danthecomposer go and add to the existing pile of goodness?

Consider this teaching:  10,000 words can describe the taste of an orange, yet it is in the tasting.  This means that one must experience the theory, not just read about it.  This article, therefore, differs from the current treasure chests of knowledge by standing alone in its discussion of experiencing and not just studying time signatures.

Every article and video correctly states:  the top number is how many beats in a bar and the bottom number is which note value takes the beat.  Endless examples then arrive but I still see people commenting all over the internet on what all of that actually means.

Of course I recommend studying the theory but do understand that it does not stop there.  In my philosophy, I call it the Reset Feeling.  No matter the time signature, tempo, drum rhythm or anything else 'musical', every song you have ever heard and will ever hear will always have a Reset Feeling.

A very helpful way to 'taste the orange' is to count and feel when walking.  With each step being 1 beat, it becomes very easy to apply any note value to each step.

The average walking pace is 2 steps per second so that's 120bpm - this is fortunately the default metronome setting and perfectly in time with the half speed 60bpm we will use in the next part of the article.

Left foot (LF), right foot (RF).

4/4:  Every 4 steps (top number) is a bar, the number attributed to each step is 1 because 4 (bottom number) is a quarter note value (crotchet).  LF 1, RF 2, LF 3, RF 4, reset feeling, repeat.

Add your own drum styles in your mind or with your hands or even sing melodies you know against this foot metronome to see how they are forced into the bar.

This is feeling time signatures without over-analysing them.

2/4:  Every 2 steps is a bar, the number attributed to each step is 2 because you have 2 steps to make up 4 crotchets (4 quarter notes).  LF (1 and) RF (2 and), reset feeling, repeat.

2/2:  Cut time.  Every two steps is a bar, the number attributed to each step is a minim (two crotchets).  LF (1), RF (and), LF (2), RF (and), reset feeling, repeat.

I do also feel it's important to understand why time signatures even need to exist at all so to do this, we will use 1 beat per second and begin 'dressing up' the beat by grouping them together and discussing tempo and pulse.

Time signatures do not reflect tempo (you can do the walking thing when running if you wanted!) but certain time signatures give the illusion of a change in tempo or that a piece is 'fast' or 'slow' in feeling.  The tempo information itself comes from the tempo number or Italian term relating to tempo, not the time signature.

Use this online metronome (or your own!) and set it to 60bpm (60 beats per minute/1 beat per second).  Leave it clicking in the background as you read.   This is simply 1 beat per second without any time signature.  If music were without time signatures or bars (measures), nobody would be able to add lyrics, write chords (because there would be no structure based on bars which are made up of fixed numbers of beats), know what note values to apply to each beat, thus the tempo could be anything, etc.  It would be a mess.  Order is required.

The most common time signature is 4/4.  The first (top) number means count 4 clicks and then experience the reset feeling.  I will now introduce you to the word 'pulse':  1 two three four 1 two three four, etc.

Seeing them in terms of duration will help to understand why certain time signatures feel different:

This 4/4 rhythm at 60bpm means a 12 bar blues song, for example, would take:  1 beat per second, 4 beats to the bar = 4 seconds to finish one bar, multiplied by 12 (bars) = 48 seconds.  The pulse is 1 two three four, 1 two three four, ...

What about 2/4?  This means two beats in the bar using 1 crotchet per beat (as above).  A 12 bar blues would now take:  1 beat per second, 2 beats to the bar = 2 seconds to finish one bar, multiplied by 12 = 24 seconds.  The pulse is 1 two 1 two, ... It could be counted as 4/4 but the 'reset feeling' is 2 beats sooner.

Let's say we make 1/4 notes total 3 in a bar:  3/4.  A 12 bar blues would now take:  1 beat per second, 3 beats to the bar = 3 seconds to finish one bar, multiplied by 12 = 36 seconds.  The pulse is 1 two three 1 two three, ... the reset feeling is now different again, influencing the lyrics, melody and performance tempo.

In 6/4?  A 12 bar blues would now take:  1 beat per second, 6 beats to the bar = 6 seconds to finish one bar, multiplied by 12 = 72 seconds.  The pulse is 1 two 3 four 5 six (or a very slow-feeling 1 two three four five six, 1 two three four five six or a slow but Waltz-like feeling of 1 two three 4 five six).  Try the above with the metronome and see how 6/4 takes a long time because the beat is a crotchet per second, not a lesser or longer note value.

This allows me to give you 6/8 to play with.  Unlike 6/4 above, 6/8 means you still count to 6, because that's how many 'beats' are in the bar (usually with a pulse of 1 two three 4 five six) but the beat is half the duration in time because the 6/4 required a crotchet per second (at 60bpm) (meaning it took 6 seconds to finish the bar) but now the note value is halved (6/8), meaning it takes half the time to play it.  Two quavers (8th note) make up a crotchet (quarter note) so you must feel two, 0.5 second-duration quavers to make up a 1 second duration crotchet (at 60bpm but the law applies to all tempos, of course; it's just easier to feel it with 1 beat per second).

Therefore, a 12 bar blues would now take:  2 beats per second (due to the doubling of /4 to /8, crotchet per second to quaver per second: 1 and = 1 second, two beats) = 3 seconds to finish the bar:  1 and 2 and 3 and - but it's actually 1 2 3 / 4 5 6 in feel, a triple time but can be grouped in twos - this is the point, it doesn't matter about timing or tempo or how beats are grouped in theory, it's the reset feeling all the way!

3/4 is 1 beat per second at 60bpm, three times (per bar): 1 2 3 reset feeling 1 2 3 reset feeling... but play the metronome at 60bpm and count.

6/8 is 2 beats per second (crotchet to quaver or 'quarter' to 'eighth' value) at 60bpm, six times (per bar): 1 2 3 4 5 6 reset feeling 1 2 3 4 5 6 reset feeling... but play the metronome at 60bpm and count and feel the difference.

We could have any number up to 32 for the top number (generally the highest you'll ever see) but as you can tell, it would take ages to finish the same song at 60bpm (32 seconds per bar!)

For this reason, certain time signatures are often played within certain 'tempo brackets'.  4/4 at 60bpm, as above, allowed us to finish our 12 bar blues in 48 seconds but if we double the tempo to 120bpm, the musicians would be forced to play the same melody at double the speed, finishing in 24 seconds.  It would quite simply sound faster and eventually, too fast if the tempo increases with 4/4 time.  This is when the composer may choose to use what is called 'cut time', when 4/4 becomes 2/2, or just choose a different time signature all together.

As above, 3/4 meant our 12 bar blues finished in 36 seconds at 60bpm.  120bpm in 3/4 time would mean it takes only 18 seconds... a very fast Waltz.  Imagine dancing to a 3/4 time song at 180bpm!?  6/4 would halve that speed but the count would be to 6 not 3 yet the Waltz feel could still remain due to the triplet feel.

And so you see, time signatures exist to help the composer both set a logical speed for the composition and aid in reading less notes per bar within a giving real time duration.  Again, reading 3/4 at 120bpm is double the effort than at 60bpm, and so this applies to all time signatures and tempos.

Time signatures, no matter all the complexity around their understanding, all feel different.  They have a different pulse and a different 'Reset Feeling'; when the bar ends and beat 1 returns, no matter how many pulses exist in the bar.

Now consider the two audio backing track videos below.  One is in 4/4 time and one is in 6/8 time.  Count as you feel 1 2 3 4 in the first video and 1 2 3 4 5 6 in the second video.

Time signature theory is made more complicated not by the top number but by the bottom number - the note value - but that's all words and of course, words are just words about words.  Music is beyond words and must be experienced.

Taste the orange!

Fortunately, you are only required to look at the top number because this tells you, no matter the piece's musical make-up and no matter the bottom number, what number to count to before the RF comes.  This is internal and not something subject to intellectual thought or wordy analysis; time signatures thus become simple to connect with.

Even if the drummer is playing a complex blend of sticks, bass drum hits, brushes, high-hat action, etc., it is still possible to feel the RF if you can reach a state of mind which is not looking to analyse but rather feel.

Lyrics also assist.  Take Happy Birthday, for example.  Sing it in 3/4 and then 4/4 (with a metronome to help).  What about 2/2?

Alternate also between 3/4 at 60bpm and at 120bpm and see how 6/8 is similar to a double speed 3/4 but with a different feel and reset feeling.  Sing the tune to yourself using your own name, perhaps?