Listening for time signatures

How can I tell a song’s time signature just by listening to it?

I can generally count how many beats are in a measure, at least to some extent, but how can I tell if a song is in 10/8 rather than 5/4, 2/2 instead of 4/4, or 6/4 instead of 6/8?

I considered that the tempo might have something to do with it (I seem to remember cut time being twice as fast as common time), but then it seems something marked “Adagio” and written in 2/2 could still be slower than something marked “Allegro” and written in 4/4.

Cut time versus Common time is the hardest to tell the difference between. It’s basically just a feel… it really has nothing to do with the tempo; cut time songs can be slow too.

Since I have no idea what kind of music you listen to, I’ll try to give you some examples that you’ve probably heard. Elton John’s “Little Jeannie” is in cut time. You can tell it has a rather laid-back feel to it, like you’re only counting every other beat. Basically, any song that has a very pronounced beat (i.e. a rock and roll song) is probably going to be in common time (4/4).

As for the 10/8 vs. 5/4 and the 6/4 vs. 6/8, the latter in both of those examples are almost always the answer. Listen to the melody; are they mostly quarter notes, or is it a string of 10 eighth notes in a row? Chances are it’s mostly quarter notes, with maybe a few eighth notes in there. Sticking with Elton John (sorry if that’s a bad choice) “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” is in 12/8, obviously very similar to 6/8. Listen to it… you can count to three in between every beat… “don’t WISH it a-WAY/don’t LOOK at it like IT’S forever…”

Well of course it may not help without being able to listen to something, but hopefully this helped a little, in its own peculiar way.

Just off the top of my head:

When listening to a piece you want to try and subdivide with the beat. If you can divide into eighth notes then you have a simple time sig. such as 2/4, 3/4, 4/4.

If you subdivide it and triplets fit to it you have a “complex” time sig. like 6/8.

(now simple and complex aren’t the exact terms)

It’s kind of hard to explain without any music or being able to sing so I would suggest listening to a piece that you know the time sig. for and trying the eighth vs. triplet subdividing. You should notice that one fits better than the other. Also, the first beat of each measure is normally emphized so you can find “1” easier. If you can’t find the first beat too well try and listen for a bass drum or percussion instrument, that’ll make it alot easier.

You can often tell the difference between 2/2 and 4/4 by the drums:
H=high Hat, S=Snare, B=Bass Drum

 S S

  S   S
K   K

Does that make sense?

OK, I’ll have a crack at it.

Let’s do the easiest… 3/4 vs 6/8. As you can see, they both break down to the same amount of beats. But in 3/4, the beats are subdived as ONE-and TWO-and THREE-and, whereas in 6/8, it’s ONE-two-three FOUR-five-six. You have a duple feel versus a triple feel. A waltz (3/4) feels totally different than something in 6/8 (eg. Elvis’ " I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.")

Now, 10/8 vs 5/4, 12/8 vs 4/4 and the such are a bit trickier. Most swing songs are written in 4/4, but they really have a feel closer to 12/8. Sometimes you’ll even see it written out as 12/8, but generally everybody writes these songs out in 4/4, with a note to swing the eighths.

In 10/8 vs 5/4 if the 10 beats are subdivided like 2-2-2-2-2 then it’s usually 5/4. If it’s something like 3-3-2-2 or 3-2-3-2, then it would be absolutely incorrect to call the song 5/4. That’s definitely 10/8.

Cut vs common is tricky. Like Bill said, one way of telling is listening to the snare. In 4/4 it’s one-and-SNARE-and-two-and-SNARE-and. In 2/2 it’s one-SNARE-two-SNARE. A lot of the difference has to do with feeling where the “one,” or first beat of the measure is. The one usually gets accented a bit, and musical phrases tend to resolve by ending on the one. It’s a bit too subtle to explain, really. You just have to listen to the difference of feel between the two time sigs.

Hope this ain’t too confusing…I know my prose hasn’t been the most lucid.

(Technically, the above should read one-and-SNARE-and-three-and-SNARE-and.)

The triplets are something I never even considered, but now that you mention them, the */8 signatures make more sense. Thanks!

By the way, the song that started this whole thing was “America” from West Side Story. When someone told me it was in 12/8, I thought about it and realized I’d either been denying the existance of triplets in that case or writing them off as some odd concoction of dotted notes and ties. I never liked them very much anyway; they just never seemed to fit.

Hmmm…“America”… I wonder if that’s the song I was thinking of. When I wrote my last post I was trying to think of a specific song from a musical to illustrate my point of 6/8 and 3/4. The song’s rhythm is “ONE-2-3, TWO-2-3, ONE, TWO, THREE” West Side Story sounds like the right musical. Anyhow, my point was going to be this. That song essentially gets its rhythmical drive by alternating 6/8 with 3/4. The first half of the measure is essential triple meter, and the second half is duple. The easiest way to write this out would be in 12/8, with the eighth notes grouped as: 3-3-2-2-2. But it would not be incorrect to write it out as 6/8, 3/4 alternating… Just a pain in the ass to read. Most of the time, 12/8 is grouped as 3-3-3-3.

pulykamell, I thought you meant “America the Beautiful”, because it raises an interesting case in point. When singing it straightforward, it’s in 4/4. But Ray Charles has turned it into 12/8 by adding triplet pulses to each beat. Caps are for the downbeats. "Oh (tic tic) BEAU (tic tic, DUM tic) ti-FUL (tic tic) FOR (tic tic) SPA (tic tic, DUM tic) cious SKIES, etc. Gives it a whole new feel, and really swings it, too. Great arrangement and interpretation, BTW. You go, Ray!

Back to the OP. Another way of determining the most likely time signature in a song is keeping track of the phrases. A musical phrase is usually 4 measures long, although sometimes 8. If the main musical theme is repeated, then that will help establish how many measures in a phrase. From there, you can work backwards to how many beats in a measure. This actually works for Bernstein’s “America.” The 6/8 phrases are divided into one measure of double triplets followed by one measure of triple doubles (if that makes sense). Since this is repeated four times before the melody recaps, the phrase is 8 measures long.

It’s not always easy or accurate to figure out whether the beat units are quarter notes, eighth notes or even halves, but I’ll echo what DooWahDiddy said. A lot of time signatures are more or less “standard” so 6/8 is a better guess than 6/4, for example.

I think the most important thing to figure out is what the song is “in” - whether it’s in 3, 4, 5, 7 and so on. You seem to have that down to an extent, so that’s good. Once you have that, the rest is what works for you (I assume you’re transcribing) and whoever it is you’re writing for. I think instead of the 10/8 vs 5/4 problem more often you’ll have a 5/8 vs 5/4 problem or a 7/8 vs 7/4 problem.

For instance, something in 5 may be easier to write as 5/8 because if you want to write a group of three followed by a group of two, you just bar the eigth notes accordingly. It’s easy for a musician to discern the intent of the composer this way.

I have to disagree with your assessment of the time signature in Bernstein’s “America.” I believe it’s 6/8 throughout, with the “I like to be in A-” measure using two groups of three eighth notes and the “-mer-i-ca” measure using three quarter notes (thus the count on all the voiced beats is: ONE two three FOUR five six, ONE THREE FIVE). It sounds as if the time signature is shifting because of the accent not occuring on the fourth beat in measure two, thus causing a unique syncopation. But there are still six eighth notes in both measures. They are just not all sung in the second measure.

While the song could be written in alternating measures of 6/8 and 3/4, it doesn’t have to be, and I believe it’s 6/8 throughout.

Sorry DAVEW0071. As much as I’d like to agree with you since you agreed with me earlier in this thread, I have the score right here in front of me, and sure enough, it is alternating 6/8 and 3/4. Only after they say, “Smoke on your pipe and put that in.” On “That in”, it goes to 6/8(3/4) and continues there for the rest of the song. Well done, pulykamell!

It’s no wonder I’ve heard it said that West Side Story is the most difficult Broadway musical to perform, at least rhythmically anyway.

sorry DooWahDiddy but I have to agree with DAVEW0071. I believe it could very well have been written 6/8 throughout and be the exact same piece of music.

Incidentally, that rhythm in “America” is called a hemiola (i.e. where the rhythm moving in groups of 3’s (ONE two three FOUR five six) changes to groups of 2’s (ONE two THREE four FIVE six) or vice versa). This was a popular rhythmic device during the Baroque era and I have never seen the composer change the time signature to account for it.

I’m not completely sure, so perhaps someone more knowledgable will comment, but in my opinion the bottom number is not determined indefinitely by the feel of the music. Time signatures are part of an elaborate system developed over many years for describing and representing music. While the top number is more obvious to the ear, the bottom number is more for the benefit of the composer and the musician reading it off the page.
Any piece in 4/4 can be written in 4/2 or 4/8 or even 4/16. Any piece in 3/4 can be written in 3/8 or even 6/4 or 6/8 and so on. However, often one is superior to the others in making the music clear on the written page.

For example I was recently writing something in a seven feel and initially tried to write it down in 7/4. However, the rhythm of the melody (actually a repeating pattern) was in straight quarter notes and the tempo was at about 150 bpm. Now that’s some pretty fast quarter notes and it isn’t that easy to read seven quarter notes per bar at that speed. But when I rewrote it in 7/8 the quarter notes became 8th notes and the beams allowed me to group them in such a way as to become much easier to see.

If Bernstein’s original arrangement was with alternating time signatures, it’s probably because that was the way he felt that the music in his head could best be represented on paper. He could just as easily have kept it in a constant 6/8 time.

This is just my humble opinion. :slight_smile:

Moe, I wasn’t saying it wasn’t the same thing, I was just illustrating that this particular example happened to be 6/8(3/4). I totally agree that it would be pretty impossible for the listener (whether trained or not) to tell the difference between the two. Basically the only difference would be that in 6/8 every eighth note would get an accent and in 3/4 every other eighth note (i.e. every quarter note) would get it.

I was under the impression that pulykamell had actually seen the sheet music somewhere and was trying to remember what song it was that had that time signature. And I was just saying that yes, he was right, it was “America”.

I have been composing for fifteen years now and you’re absolutely right… the bottom number really is just up to the composer, whatever makes it easier to read. But again, maybe Bernstein really wanted very badly for the accents to flush out on certain notes so he chose to keep changing the time signature (you know those crazy geniuses). :wink:

Thanks for sticking up for me, Moe. But since DWD had the score in front of him, I stand corrected.

That may be, but I maintain that it wouldn’t have to be alternating time signatures. Since the value of the eighth notes stay the same throughout, just writing the “-mer-i-ca” measure using three quarter notes would ensure that the accents fell where they should (if you write the rhythm down, keeping both measures 6/8, you’ll see what I mean). I think Bernstein just liked it written that way.

Fair enough. I suppose it’s just a matter of personal preference… :slight_smile:

A good explanation is here

oops. I see on reading the thread back that you were specifically talking about that actual score. My mistake.

Anyway, I hope the rest of my ramblings helped the OP in some way.

<slight hijack> I was just thinking of a semi-related experience. I performed Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint a little while back. In the second movement the time alternates throughout from 3/4 to 5/8 to 4/4 (IIRC) but the only way I was able to get it was by counting it in 19 really quick pulses. “Boy, I’ll bet at that speed if you lost count even for a moment you’d be pretty screwed huh?” ::sigh:: yes, 'tis true :frowning: :slight_smile:

Not exactly useful information, but one of the most interesting records I own is “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I’d been listening to it for a couple of years before I actually read the liner notes and found out that the whole album is “about” wacky time signatures.

It’s actually kind of fun (relatively speaking) to listen to the record without cheating by reading the liner notes or song titles and try to figure out what the time signature(s) are. The only one I disagree with is “Three to Get Ready,” which according to the notes (and the title) has 2 measures in 3/4 alternating with 2 measures of 4/4 throughout. I still think it could’ve been written in 6/8 entirely, but then again I’m no expert…

I’m not arguing at all that the time signature in “America” cannot be written out as 6/8. I’ve never seen the actual score, but I have read in two music books (unfortuntely, I cannot site them, as they are not in my possession at the moment)that state “America” gets its rhythmic drive by alternating measures in 6/8 with measures in 3/4. I assume that the score was probably written out in 6/8, to make it easier for musicians to read; especially since it remains consistent throughout.

My point is this: what is written out is not necessarily what is not what is technically happening rhythmically. My example about 4/4 and 12/8 in blues and swing music is indicative of this. 12/8 suggests triple meter; 4/4 suggests duple. However, most blues and swing songs are written out in 4/4, with a note to make two eighth notes a triplet grouping of quarter followed by eighth. Now, you can argue the case that it’s written in 4/4 because swing is not exactly that strict in its rhythm. Some will play these groupings closer to a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth; some will almost imperceptible stretch the first eighth and shave the second. In most cases, though, a triplet feel dominates and I would argue that a 12/8 time signature is much more accurate in conveying the rhythm than 4/4.

There are even those that argue Brubeck’s “Take Five” is more accurately 6/8 followed by 2/4, because the beat subdivision is 3-3-2-2, rather than the more traditional 5/4, which would be 2-2-2-2-2. Now, this is very important for a musician to know. If I see a piece of music in 5/4, I expect the beats to be divided a certain way. As with 4/4. Occassionally you will see pieces of music in 4/4 which are writen as 3+3+2/8. (The middle section of “Extraordinary” from Pippen comes to mind.) It’s a fairly common rhythm these days in pop/rock music. But most of the time it is written as 4/4, which often makes it a pain in the ass to read because of all the dotted notes, sixteenth-note rests and the such. And it tells the musician less than 3+3+2/8 does. With that time sig, I know where the accents are; I know how the phrases are subdivided; with the other, I’m expected a more straight duple feel.

My 2 cents,