The time signature, also known as meter signature, of a piece of music defines how the beat is organized by prescribing how many beats occur per measure and what kind of note designates one beat. Each beat is counted sequentially. Beginning with the first beat, a musician may count 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on depending on what the top number is in the time signature. The top number in time signatures reflects the number of beats in regular, repeated groupings of beats in each measure (see figure 2.1). By creating consistent groupings of beats, or by using measures with the same number of beats, music has a feeling of an even flow or pace. In music with more complex mixed meters where the time signature may change from measure to measure, the music’s flow may feel irregular. In music with an asymmetrical meter such as 5/4, beats can be stressed in a variety of combinations. A discussion of counting asymmetrical meter occurs later in this chapter.
A time signature notation does two things: The top number indicates how many beats occur per measure, and the lower number gives the type of note that will receive one beat (see figure 2.2). For example, if the time signature is 4/4, the upper number indicates that there are four beats per measure. The lower number, in this case the numeral 4, tells the musician that a quarter note receives one beat. Two exceptions to time signatures with two numerals are the symbols for common time (simple quadruple meter, or 4/4) and cut time (alla breve, simple duple meter, or 2/2; see figure 2.3). In general, common time, or 4/4 meter, is the most common meter used in music, especially popular music, rock, rap, and hip-hop.
To reiterate, a time signature designates how many beats in a measure and what kind of note receives one beat. Because time signatures have one number written above and below the middle line of the staff, they look similar to fractions at the beginning of a piece of music. Since there is not really a line separating the numbers, 3/4 time is not referred to as “three fourths” time. It is called “three four” time.
As previously stated, the bottom number on the time signature is the number that designates what kind of note receives 1 beat. It can be a variety of note values, as in 2/4 (4 representing a quarter note), 6/8 (8 representing an eighth note), or 2/2 (2 representing a half note). Sometimes, though rarely, composers will use a 16 representing the sixteenth note or a 1 representing the whole note in time signatures. Often, it is a four representing a quarter note.
In the 20th century, composers created additional time signatures, making exceptions to the standard two-numeral time signature. Along with the new time signatures, composers created new ways of notating them. These new time signatures might have the lower number replaced by a note value. Additionally, composers created decimal meters, fractional meters (i.e., 2½/4 and 5½/4), and polymeters during the 20th century. See the following discussion on various meter classifications for information on mixed meters and polymeters.
Basic Meter Classifications: Simple and Compound
The basic types of meter classifications are simple and compound. Simple or compound meters occur with two (duple), three (triple), or four (quadruple) beats per measure. In simple meter, the top number is always 2, 3, or 4, and the beat unit divides into two equal parts. (A beat unit is another way of saying the number of beats in the measure.) For compound meter, the top number is always 6, 9, or 12, and the beat unit divides into three equal parts.
Following are some examples of duple, triple, and quadruple simple and compound meters:
- 2/4 meter is a simple duple meter. It is counted 1, 2. It has two beats per measure, and the quarter note receives one beat. In duple meter, the metrical accent is on the first beat, or count, of the measure. Nursery rhymes and the practice of marching illustrate both the sound and the feeling of duple time, respectively.
- 6/8 is a compound duple meter. There are six beats per measure. It is counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Yet in faster tempos the first three counts can be counted as 1 and the second three counts can be counted as 2. You will hear the beats 1, 2, 3 when you count 1 and beats 4, 5, 6 when you count 2. In this example, 6/8 is a compound duple meter. However, 6/8 time can also be felt as a triple meter and is used in waltzes.
- 3/4 is a simple triple meter. It is counted 1, 2, 3. The 18th-century minuet and the 19th-century waltz are dances that are inseparable from the triple meter to which they are danced.
- 9/8 is a compound triple meter. It is counted 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8-9.
- 4/4 is a simple quadruple meter. It is counted 1, 2, 3, 4. Common time, or common meter (C or 4/4), as introduced earlier, is formally known as quadruple meter or quadruple time. In each quadruple time signature’s four beats, the first beat receives an accent and the third beat receives a secondary accent.
- 12/8 is a quadruple compound meter. It is counted 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8-9, 10-11-12.
As stated earlier, there is usually a metrical accent at the beginning of a measure. In duple meter, as in every meter, the accent is usually on the first beat of the measure, giving the first beat a stronger emphasis followed by the second beat’s weaker emphasis, the upbeat. Without the metrical accent at the beginning of the measure, it is difficult to discern the meter.
With practice, you can begin to distinguish meter aurally. As an example of duple meter, listen to John Philip Sousa’s march “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It is in 2/2 meter; the beats are clearly 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. As you listen, tap your foot with the beats. Next, listen to Sousa’s “Washington Post March.” It is in 6/8 meter. When you tap your foot to this march, it is likely that you will tap two beats per measure, as is common when music is written in compound duple meter. But if you listen to the actual notes of the melody, it is easier to hear the six beats in every measure. In “Washington Post March,” the 6/8 time signature gives the march a swinging quality. “Stars and Stripes Forever” feels more straightforward.
Perhaps for some dancers it is difficult to distinguish between 2/2 or 2/4 and 4/4 meters. Listen to Sousa’s cut-time “Stars and Stripes Forever” march. Can you hear the clear 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2? Next can you hear the 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 in both Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” which are in 4/4 meter.
Asymmetrical (Composite) Meter
When a time signature has an odd number of counts and the counts can be grouped in various combinations of twos, threes, or fours within a measure, they are known as asymmetrical or composite. Meters such as 5/4, 7/8, and 11/8 are asymmetrical (or composite). Furthermore, within the beat groupings of 5/4 meter, the beats can be organized conventionally as 1-2, 3-4-5 (the metrical accent and secondary accent are on counts 1 and 3 respectively) or 1-2-3, 4-5 (the metrical accent is on count 1 and the secondary accent is on count 4). In a less conventional manner, the beats could be organized as 1, 2-3, 4-5, thus shifting the measure’s secondary accents to counts 2 and 4.
Mixed meters are measures or groupings of measures in different time signatures. Examples of mixed-meter music date to the Renaissance. Mixed meters also occurred in world music dating to times before the existence of music notation.
In a mixed-meter composition, the time signature listed at the beginning of a piece of music might be 4/4. Yet, after four measures, the composer changes the time signature to 3/4. After four more measures, the composer returns to 4/4 meter. This changing of meters within a piece of music is referred to as mixed meter. Sting’s “Love Is Stronger Than Justice” is an example of the meter changing from the verse, which is in 7/4, to the chorus, which is 4/4.
Say that a composition starts in 5/4. But after two measures, the time signature changes to 3/4 for three measures. This would be counted 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Additionally, the first two measures’ accents could be organized differently, for example 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4-5 (the numbers in bold indicate the metrical accent; the numbers in bold and italics indicate the secondary accent) followed by 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. A choreographer might want to count this phrase (a phrase is like a musical sentence) in so-called dancer counts, meaning that he understands the music’s meter, yet for the sake of the dancers, he follows the music’s meter but adapts the actual counts and accents to a format that is easier for the dancers to follow or remember such as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. Once again, it is important that dancers, choreographers, and teachers are aware of music’s meter, accents, and stresses. Without this knowledge and awareness, the dancers might sense that they are off the beat or are emphasizing an offbeat or upbeat, when in fact the choreographer has ignored the music’s metrical patterns and accents.
Here’s another example of a mixed meter. Listen to the song “America” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (available on YouTube). Can you hear the 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1 - 2 - 3, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1 - 2 - 3 (“I want to be in A-mer-i-ca, OK by me in A-mer-i-ca”), the alternating meter? Bernstein, rather than write the time signature change with each measure, notated 6/8 3/4, at the beginning of the song. Throughout the song, the 6/8 measures alternate with 3/4 measures.
Also listen to Debussy’s Danse in E (the Tarantelle styrienne score is at sheetmusicpoint.com/composer/d/debussy/piano/misc/debussy-danse.pdf and you can listen to and watch a performance on the Internet). Can you tell where the music changes meters? Nine measures from the end, the meter becomes 3/4 for four measures and then returns to the original 6/8.
Another type of musical meter is polymeter. In a polymeter, different meters occur simultaneously. In Joan Osborne’s version of Captain Beefheart’s “Right Hand Man,” the drums play in 2/4 meter while the guitar and vocal lines proceed in 7/4 (available on YouTube). When the drums join in after the lead guitar’s 7/4 meter introduction, the effect of combining the two meters seems to move the measures of seven beats from 1, 3, 5, 7 accents to 2, 4, 6 stresses, creating an overall effect of a 14-count phrase (see chapter 3 to learn about musical phrases). Listen to the instrumental opening of Osborne’s “Right Hand Man.” Count the drum line. Do you hear the 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 of the bass and snare drums? When listening to the guitar rift, can you hear how the 7/4 seems to shift the accents of the drum line?