Musical Dopers, teach me about time signatures

So I’m reading a really good book about modern musical theatre comparing and contrasting Webber with Sondheim and explaining their strengths and weaknesses as well as their contributions to modern musical theater with a minimum of snottiness (which is nice. You get the feeling that he likes both in different ways).

Anyway, the author is very taken with how kewl the weird-ass time signatures that Sondheim apparently uses are. I vaguely remember my music classes from grade school, but not well enough to have half a clue as to what he’s talking about.

FIrst, I have no idea what the bottom number in a time sig is for. I understand that the top number is number of beats so for 3/4 time, you count:“ONE two three” for the top number but what’s the “4” do?

Second, how do you know how to…accent the beat? Why isn’t it: “one TWO three”, for example.

Next, what’s the difference between 3/4 and, say 6/8? It’s the same number and (as far as I can tell) you count it the same way: “ONE two three FOUR five six”. How is that different from “ONE two three,ONE two three”?

For that matter, how do you know where the accent goes?

Looking at the book, Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story is 6/8 but is counted “ONE two THREE four FIVE six”. Why? Shouldn’t that be 2/something? (Besides, isn’t he counting it wrong? The song goes: “I like to BE in A-MER-i-ca!” If he were right, it would be phrased “I like TO be IN A-MER-i-CA!”, wouldn’t it?

Ditto with “Send In The Clowns”–12/8? Why is it 12/8? It doesn’t “count” that way–“ISn’t it rich? ARE we a pair? ME here at LAST on the ground, YOU in mid-air” I’ll be damned if I can get any consistant beat out of it, let alone 12/8.

I’m fascinated by this stuff, but I freely admit I’m completely lost.

Can anyone help? (Examples where you “count” (ONE two three) would really help)



The 4 indicates that each beat is a crotchet (quarter note). Essentially, there’s little difference between 3/16, 3/8, 3/4 and 3/2, in that they all go “One Two Three”. The differences are the implications - 3/8 or 3/16 suggests a much faster speed, and 3/2 a slow one.

If you were accenting ‘two’ in every bar, then there would be no change, everything would just be shifted by one beat. On the other hand, syncopation - placing an emphasis in an ‘unexpected’ position - is a staple part of music. Without it, the music would get very boring and repetitive.

3/4: One and Two and Three and
6/8: One two three Four five six

The book doesn’t show what Bernstein wrote, which was “6/8 + 3/4”, meaning that bar-by-bar, the piece alternates between the two sets of emphases you identify in the lyrics.

For examples of 3/4 time, (almost) any waltz will do. (Blue Danube?)

Time signatures can be tricky things, I admit. Typically they’ll mean some convention…like 3/4 being a ‘waltz’ beat (ONE two three ONE two three) but those are only conventions…it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some of the most time-signature-changing rock and roll music is early Rush. I swear sometimes they did it just to show they could. The drummer, Neil Peart, once said ‘Write the music first…figure out what time signature it’s in later.’

Profound…yet infuriating.

I think you’re having trouble because you’re ignoring how long some of the words are held. I’m not sure if SITC is 12/8 or 3/4, but assuming it’s 12/8, the first 3 syllables are a pickup (they’re the last three 8th notes in the group of 12) and “rich” falls at the beginning of the measure. Add in the lengthy held values and you have something like this:

1   2   3     4   5   6     7   8   9     10   11   12
                                          is - n't  it
ri - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  ch,     are  we   a
pa - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - ir,    me  here  at
last on the   grou - - - - - - - - nd,    you  in   mid-
ai - - -  - - - - - - - - - - - - - r ....

That seem reasonable to you? Enough coding for one afternoon, at any rate.

Yeah, I remember reading an interview with Eddie Van Halen, and he said that he’d just play around until he found something he liked enough to present to the band.

(Paraphrased, obviously)

Alex: That’s in 5/8.

Eddie: Well, that’s the way it is. Figure it out, drummer boy.

Hey, c’mon, y’all are starting off in the middle of Lesson 3.

If you don’t mind, I’ll do the basics. The time signature has, as you know, one number sitting on top of another. The bottom number indicates what flavor of note gets one beat. If it’s a four, a quarter note is worth one beat. If it’s a two, a half note gets one beat instead. You hardly ever see a three or a five on the bottom — in fact, I don’t think I ever have. (I suppose you could have a dotted quarter note be worth one beat, but that would be an awful headache and I can’t imagine anyone doing it except to prove that they could write it that way). Anyhow, the top number therefore doesn’t merely tell you how many beats per measure, it tells you, in conjunction with the bottom digit, how many of the notes with the value of the lower number are in each measure.

With that in mind: a measure of 2/2 could be redefined as a measure of 4/4 easily enough (the math works out the same), so it’s a matter of whether or not you “hear” or find it useful and necessary to “feel” four beats’ worth in at least some of those measures. Even there, it’s a matter of style: I’ve seen plenty of 4/4 measures chock full of runs of sixteenth notes interspersed with eighth and dotted-eighth notes, so to count them out you really have to count the sixteens, yet they aren’t written as 16/16 time. Not that they couldn’t be.

You do sometimes see time sigs with high numbers tops and bottom in syncopated music. In straightforward music lacking complex syncopation, if you’re hearing four beats per measure and you have any sense of rhythm, you’re going to hear the offbeats in between them (giving you eight per measure even when you’re counting four) and even the semi-offbeats in the gaps between those (giving you sixteen per measure while you’re counting four). But if you’ve got notes coming in on the 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 15, and 17 of an 18 beat measure, you may wish to actually write it as 18/8 rather than 6/8 or 3/8 or 3/4. Mathematically, though, you could do any of those (they aren’t wrong, although they could be hard to read).

There are some conventions about time sigs, beats, and the expected rhythm of the music. The 6/8 time sig, for instance, is heavily associated with a gently rocking swingin’ along feel, with the main beat on the 1 and the 4 and a likely transition note on the 3 and the 6 just before them. You could write music in 6/8 that trucks along as a fast three instead, (1, 3, 5 instead of 1, 4) but by convention that’s more likely to be written as 3/4 (or 3/8). Again, though, it’s a convention, not a rule.

I take back that snarky note about y’all starting off in mid-lesson. masonite posted while I was composing mine (I got interrupted, OK?) and is an excellent teacher.

Another thing to keep in mind about time signatures such as 6/8 and 12/8:

These are essentially the same as 2/4 and 4/4 time, except that the beats are subdivided by 3. If you were to watch a musician who was tapping his foot while playing in 12/8 time, you would not see his foot tapping 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12. He would be tapping is foot 1-2-3-4, while the beat would be subdivided like so:

Actual beats: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12
Foot tapping: 1     2     3     4

Writing the song in 12/8 instead of 4/4 is often a matter of convenience. For example, if the composer wanted 4 beats with each beat subdivided by 3, doing so in 4/4 time would require the notation of triplets. A triplet is where you have three equal beats in the space of one beat. Because beats are typically divided by factors of 2, a special notation is required to indicate a triplet: a bracket above or below the three notes in question, and the number “3” along with the bracket. As you can see, this requires extra writing and extra ink for the printer. So using a triplet is only really practical for “incidental” occurances of three-note patterns within an otherwise 4-based composition. If the composer wants the entire song to feature a triplet feel, it is far, far more practical to use 12/8 rather than 4/4 with a barrage of triplets.

6/8 is very similar. You’ll hear 6/8 in many, many marches by John Philip Sousa. For example, The Washington Post. (Click here and scroll down to find a MIDI file.) In a march, you obviously want the song to have a 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2 feel to correspond with left-right-left-right. So, just like with 12/8, the composer uses 6/8 to indicate a 1-2-1-2 feel but with each beat subdivided by 3.

GorillaMan was mostly correct about 3/16, 3/8, 3/4 and 3/2 being essentially the same thing. However, 3/2 is not necessarily going to be slower than 3/4. One reason for using a half-note as the base of the time signature could be the subdivision of each beat. Let’s say we have a song with very rapid passages in which each beat is subdivided by 8. Writing the song in 3/4 would require the use of 32nd notes, while writing the same song in 3/2 would require 16th notes. Perhaps I should explain a few note values and how they’re indicated on sheet music:

An 8th note is indicated by a single “flag” at the top of the note’s stem.
A 16th note is indicated by a double “flag” at the top of the note’s stem.
A 32nd note is indicated by a triple “flag” at the top of the note’s stem.
A 64th note is indicated by a quadruple “flag” at the top of the note’s stem.

As you might well imagine, the more “flags” there are on the notes, the more crowded the page becomes, and the more difficult it is to read. So, by taking a song in 3/4 and changing it to 3/2, you can play the 1-2-3 at exactly the same tempo while making the music easier to read. You’ve doubled the value of the basic beat - a quarter note becomes a half note, an 8th becomes a quarter, a 16th becomes an 8th and those pesky, hard-to-read 32nd notes become 16th notes.

There are many, many musicians who, upon seeing a page of 32nd notes, will flee screaming. Just the sight of 32nd notes implies “hard to play”. Changing the time signature and converting those 32nd notes to 16th notes lowers the intimidation level of the piece.

How nice of you! I do teach, and if anyone needs piano or theory lessons in Seattle, please contact me. :slight_smile:

My general advice would be to not worry too much about the heavy-duty theoretical concepts of time, and certainly not be bothered with analyzing weird signatures. If you want to learn this sort of thing, work with the common meters for a while first – you’ll quickly get to the point where you can identify 4/4, 3/4, 3/8, 6/8, 12/8, and maybe even 2/2, just by the “feel.” Then branch out from there and start worrying about whether Bernstein might have used 3/4 instead of 6/8, or whatever.

For all practical, real-life purposes, there are only two meters that matter: 4/4 and 3/4. 4/4 is a march beat and 3/4 is a waltz beat. Virtually everything else is a mere variation on a theme. (12/8, for example, is a kind of slow 4/4 where each quarter-note is subdivided into 3.) Leave Bernstein, Rush, Brubeck, etc. alone until you can recognize 4/4 vs. 3/4 by ear alone.

Luckily, I have the sheet music (ok, maybe not “luckily” but here it is nonetheless).
Clowns bounces back and forth between 12/8 and 9/8 - which makes it fun for everyone!

masonite, more or less guessed the counting, it’s actually

1   2   3     4   5   6     7   8   9     10   11   12
                                          is - n't  it
ri - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  ch,     are  we   a
pa - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - ir,    me  here  at (switch to 9/8)
last on the   ground- -,   you  in   mid- (switch back to 12/8)


I’m also almost entirely sure that America does time signature changes as well - but I can’t find it. (It’s here somewhere, I know, somewhere)

Ah, thanks for the correction. That does complexify things a bit, doesn’t it? I’m not as familiar with the tune as I am with some others – mostly, I know the lacrimonious Krusty the Klown version.

Heh, I invented a word there. I think I meant lachrymose.

It does, as GorillaMan stated. We covered it in music class in highschool as a popular example of a song changing time signatures. One measure of 6/8, one measure of 3/4.

I always hear it in my head as ONE-and-a-TWO-and-a-ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and…

I [sub]like to[/sub] BE [sub]in a-[/sub] MER-I-CA!

Having just sung the Lord of the Rings Symphony, I can tell you that Howard Shore is a fan of 5/4, 7/4 and 11/4 music.

I love playing Rush’s late-70s music on my bass. Those weird time signatures are a kick. For example, the song “A Farewell To Kings” has this ridiculously difficult section in the middle, during the guitar solo, where the time alternates 5/8, 7/8, 5/8, 7/8…

BTW - Rush still does the strange-time-signature thing, but they’re much more subtle about it these days. I think that’s the sign of a master of the technique - the odd timing is done so skillfully that you don’t really even notice it until you start listening closely and trying to analyze and transcribe it.


I think it’s important to write, right over the bar line where 6/8 becomes 3/4, that an eighth note still equals an eighth note in length.

People always use “complex” when describing Sondheim. Is it really the time signatures, or that none of his shows sound like each other?

And ALW uses irregular time signatures fairly regularly, but tends to chicken out and revert quickly to a regular time signature. For instance, in “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat”, he starts in 13/8, but then reverts to 4/4 as soon as the verse starts. Mind you, he was a bit restricted by what T.S. Eliot wrote, but a song entirely in 13/8 would have been fun.

The bridge (or chorus, depending on what you want to call it) of “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser” is in 7/8. You can almost hear the orchestra counting the eighth notes. :slight_smile:

In the “real” version of “Memory”, the line “the withered leaves collect at my feet” is actually in 10/8 (the cover versions almost always remaining in 12/8), and I think it works much better. It throws the listener off.

Shifts in time signature occur frequently in Evita, probably because of the operatic nature of the songs. Nothing unusual there, if you consider it recitative.

And there’s some 7/8 and 5/4 in Jesus Christ Superstar: The 7/8 is the “Nazareth your famous son/should have stayed a great unknown” bridge in “Heaven On Their Minds”. And all of “Everything’s Alright” is in 5/4.

Please don’t think I’m defending Andrew Lloyd Webber. Just providing more examples.

I personally think there are far more interesting things you can do to throw off the listener (e.g. I like to use unusual harmonic progressions dictated by the melody) rather than to just abruptly change time signatures for the hell of it (unless, of course, the lyrics dictate it). But time sigs can still be hella fun to play around with. :slight_smile:

  • s.e., B.Mus. (Composition)

Thanks to all for the info! It clears a lot up.

I’m still not sure why this guy’s getting quite so excited about time signatures, but at least I have a better idea of how to count it so I can puzzle out what he’s talking about! :slight_smile:

Scott–He doesn’t think that the time-signatures are all that important, but he (and another guy I’ve been reading “Ethan Mordden”) both get hard-ons when discussing Sondheim’s weird time-signatures amidst the rapture of all his other spiffy qualities (modal somethings and tonic-something elses…but that’s another thread) and this is helping in my quest to better understand Sondheim (who’s quite an aquired taste for me…but one I’m well on my way to aquiring)

BTW: “Everything’s Alright” is 5/4? Doesn’t it go:

TRY not to get WORried
TRY not to turn ON to
PROB-lems that upSET you
OO-oo-oh, DON’T you know
EV-ery-thing’s al-RIGHT yes
EV-ery-thing’s fine…

which looks like 6/x to me. Reason I’m asking is just to confirm that I’m counting it right. (PS-The song examples really helped. I know know what, say, 7/8ths sounds like! :slight_smile: )

And does the time sig. control where the accents go? I mean, in “America”, other than the fact that it sounds stoopid, is there anything that lets the singer know that it’s not “i LIKE to be in A-mer-I-ca!”?

And one other question–the bottom number means what kind of note gets one beat. So if it’s 4/4 time, you put 4 quarter notes into a measure, but if it’s 2/2 time, you only can get 2 quarter note in?

Thanks for everyone’s help with this!


Basically, yes, that’s part of the role of the time signature. If the composer does want to position accents elsewhere, either single ones or frequently to create a different (or more complex) rhythm, he uses accent marks, “>”, on individual notes.

There’s four quarter notes in both 4/4 and 2/2. The difference with 2/2 is that the lower 2 designates the primary beats as half-notes, so instead of “ONE two three four” you get “One…two…”

Here’s how to count “Everything’s Alright”:

 1    and  2  and  3  4   5
TRY  no- - t  to  get WORried


The note lengths for each syllable are 8th, quarter, 8th, quarter, quarter, quarter.

I’ve pulled out my vocal score of “West Side Story”.

The time signature is written once at the beginning of the main section of “America” thus:

 6    3
 -  ( - )
 8    4

with the parentheses being tall ones to enclose the entire 3/4.

There’s actually no consistent indication in the vocal part beyond that to indicate the alternating time signatures. However, in the piano accompaniment in this score, accent marks “>” are used in the bass line as GorillaMan said. Also in the accompaniment, the 8th notes are barred together as appropriate - 3 together in the 6/8 bars, 2 together in the 3/4 bars. (Instead of single flags on the individual 8th notes which is what the vocal part has, in the accompaniment they are connected by a single bar.)

I once heard a story about a conductor in town who announced to the orchestra that 7/8 would go like this:


(By which I mean that the two-syllable “se-ven” actually made it a regular bar of 4/4.)

Probably not a true story, but good for a laugh.