Can you really hear the "time" of a song?

For my own curiosity, can you really hear a difference between 4/4 time, 3/4 time, etc? Is there really a difference, or is it academic…simply dividing the correct quantities of notes into measures on the written page. As a listener, it all sounds like a string of notes, regardless. Maybe someone can give me some examples in pop or classical music to hear the differences.

The different notes in a measure will have different emphasis. In 4/4, the strongest emphasis is on the first beat of a measure, with a secondary emphasis on the third beat, so if you hear something going DUM dum Dum dum DUM dum Dum dum, then it’s probably in 4/4. In 3/4, the strongest emphasis is on the first beat without a secondary emphasis, so if you hear something going DUM dum dum DUM dum dum, then it’s probably in 3/4. In addition, there’s often a repeating motif of some sort with a period of one measure (even if not in the melody, then usually in the bass line), which can be a clue as to the time signature.

Now, it’s not always possible to distinguish between pairs of 2/4 measure and 4/4, or between pairs of 3/4 and 6/8, but the difference between 4/4 and 3/4 is pretty obvious.

I can definitely hear it.

Watch this scene from Stripes, where they’re marching and John and Russell start singing “Doo Wah Diddy”. The melody is anchored by the first beat in each measure.

THERE she was, just-a
WALKin’ down the street, singin’
DOO wah diddy diddy
DUM diddy doo

The footsteps are the beat (or should be, it’s a little ragged). The melody doesn’t sound like a pattern, except that it always hits that first beat. If you count along with it, it’s ONE-two-three-four. I guess I’ve been doing it so long, I can’t imagine how anyone doesn’t hear it.

Exactly what Chronos said. (Edited to add, also what Robot Arm said too) Waltzes are a good example of 3/4 and 6/8 music. The beat has an obvious one two three - one two three - like a pulse.

Some groups have made a signature of odd times, October Project is one of those. I couldn’t find the song I wanted by them, (Deep as it Goes) but here’s one of theirs with an odd time. See if you can count it out, try tapping your foot and figure out the meter they are using. October Project Always

Here’s one of theirs in 4/4, you can count out the beats and it has a 4 time pulse and repeat.
October Project Return to Me

Dave Brubeck is a famous pianist that did several songs in odd time frames. His most famous classic performed is Take Five! which is in 5/4 time. Try a quick listen to this one, clap or tap along and you can see and feel the 5/4 meter.

Here’s Oom Pah Pah! from Oliver cued up to the chorus, where the 3/4 is stressed probably as much as it’s possible to stress 3/4. Count it in your head: it’s “1-2-3,1-2-3,1-2-3,1-2-3.” You can’t really count “1-2-3-4,1-2-3-4,1-2-3-4” (as 4/4) without ending up in really awkward beats on the one.

To really mess you up, try to find the beat in the first part of “Money” by Pink Floyd.

It’s written in 7/4 :eek:

And there’s a Rush song (forgot which) is either in 5/4 or 2/4 and 3/4 alternating.

To really mess you up, try to find the beat in the first part of “Money” by Pink Floyd.

It’s written in 7/4 :eek:

And there’s a Rush songs in 7/4: The Spirit of Radio
and 7/8:
Tom Sawyer (instrumental part)
La Villa Strangiato

I thought Spirit of the Radio was in 4/4, same thing with La Villa, and Sawyer, I used to drum those. Are you certain of the meters for those songs?
I think though the other song you’re thinking of by Rush is Natural Science from the album Permanent Waves.

Shouldn’t we make sure the OP has got the basics before we start listing all the esoteric time signatures we can think of.

Here’s a web page with a sortable list of songs in time signatures other than 4/4:

“America” from “West Side Story” famously switches between 6/8 and 3/4. “I like to be in A-” is in 6/8, “-mer-i-ca” is in 3/4. And just before that you can hear the same switches in the music and the clapping. This exact pattern persists throughout the song except for a few spots, the discovery of which is left as an exercise to the listener. :slight_smile:

4/4 time (four four time) = boom chick boom chick

3/4 time = boom chick chick

6/9 time = boom chicka bow wow

I know! Slow down guys! Let’s start with 3/4 and 4/4 and go from there. If Jinx is having trouble hearing 3/4 and 4/4, 7/4 and the alternating 3/4-6/8 in America is definitely not going to clarify matters.

I love it when I encounter a song in 5/4, like Take 5 or Mission Impossible. I heard another recently, but can’t recall what it was.

I’ve brought it up before, but the minor pop hit by the Juliana Hatflied Three is in 5/4.

Or WTF? by OK Go, if you mean the song was recent, too.

No, not OK Go. Cool video, by the way. As usual, from those guys.

I think it was an instrumental on a movie soundtrack.

Here’s an example of the same song arranged with different time signatures.

“Big C”, as played by the Cal Band (UC Berkeley)
It’s in 4. But there’s also a stronger accent on alternate beats, so that it almost feels like a slow 2.

“Big C”, as played by the Cal Aggie Marching Band (UC Davis)
This arrangement is 6/8 (probably most noticeable in the flute/clarinet parts). You can still detect a broader 2-feel, but now there are 6 smaller beats in the same amount of time that took 2 in the first arrangement.

For further comparison, there’s the UCLA fight song based on Big C :
“Sons of Westwood” played by the UCLA Bruin Marching Band.

It’s the same melody, played in 4 as the Cal version, but with each beat emphasized more evenly. You don’t get the “slow 2” feel as much in this one.

Oh, boy. I didn’t want to bring this up in this thread quite yet, (as I was afraid of confusing the OP) but here’s some more examples from a recent Straight Dope thread I put up:

The 3/4 and 4/4 examples should be most useful for the OP at the moment. Disregard the 12/8 and the 5/8 unless you’re curious.

I’m sure it’s hard to figure out the time signature of Money if you’ve never done it before, but I think it’s pretty easy for someone with an untrained ear to feel where the one is. To the OP I’d say it’s something you feel more than you hear. If you find your foot tapping along with a piece of music, or for that matter if you’ve ever clapped along, then you’re able to find a down beat.