Author Archives: Liz Nicholas

About Liz Nicholas

Liz is a passionate community music leader, working primarily with adults in different settings. She believes everyone can sing and make music to a level that gives them pleasure and a way of expressing themselves.

Don’t Fear the Theory 3: Time signatures

Most music – and I mean most jazz, pop, rock, blues, dance, folk and classical music – has a 4-beat metre.   We feel the pulse going 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 with beat ONE being stronger.  This is often referred to as four-four time or common time. There are four beats in a bar.

The second most common metre is three-four, three beats in a bar.

I just looked through my list of songs from choir and there are only a handful in 3-time:  Edelweiss, God Be With You, and Silent Night.  You might notice that each of these have a link with either Austria or Switzerland, as does the waltz, which started in Vienna.

The waltz is the classic example of a tune with three beats in a bar.  Pick a waltz, any waltz, and you will hear the oom-pah-pah (yes, that song’s in three-time) bassline driving it along.

Here are a few you can try listening to and tapping along with:

Seal – Kiss from a Rose
Verdi – La donna è mobile
The Beatles – Norwegian Wood
Shostakovich waltz no. 2
My Favourite Things
Metallica – Nothing Else Matters

If you try counting 1-2-3-4 on top of these tunes, it won’t work – unless you go really slowly, so that you are saying a number for each whole bar.

What to look for on the page:

Here are some time signatures. 

Four-four is by far the commonest time signature so sometimes the numbers are replaced by a letter C to indicate Common Time.

It’s written once, at the beginning of the piece (look, there are no time signatures on the 2nd line of music).  You will only get another time signature if it changes during the piece, which is unusual.

You say the two numbers one after the other, top then bottom: Two-four, three-four, six-eight.

The top number tells you how many beats in the bar.

Simple Time Signatures ­ have the number 2, 3 or 4 at the top, and this number tells you how many beats there are in the bar.

(I’ve debated whether to include the next paragraph here, but I decided to put it in for the sake of completeness.  Don’t worry if you don’t understand, as we will come back and look at it in detail.)

Compound Time Signatures  have the numbers 6, 9 or 12 at the top and you divide that number by 3 to get the number of beats in the bar.  6/8 has 2 beats, 9/8 has 3 beats, and 12/8 has 4 beats.  There will be a whole post later about listening to and identifying these time signatures.

With the time signature and the tempo instruction (if there is one!) you have your metre for the song, the underlying template that the notes and rhythms sit on top of.

The pattern a conductor beats usually shows you the time signature and the first beat of every bar is shown by the hand or baton coming straight down.

The first beat of the bar is called the DOWNBEAT.  If you get lost you can get back on track by looking or listening for the downbeat.

Vocab of the Week:

Time signature – two numbers written on top of each other at the beginning of a piece to indicate the metre.

Downbeat – the first (strongest) beat in a bar

Common Time – 4/4 time

Don’t Fear the Theory 2: Bars and measures

All non-alcoholic!

Welcome back  This week’s theme is Metre.

It’s another of those words that has more than one definition. We know a metre as the metric unit of length. This is a different concept, and yet… measuring out the music is exactly what we are doing.

The regular ongoing pulse of a piece of music is divided into short equal segments of (usually) 2, 3 or 4 beats. 

We count out the beats and 1 is stronger, so that you can hear the metre.

1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4  

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 

1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2

Each group of beats is called a bar.  Each bar consists of a certain number of beats, usually 2, 3 or 4.  Four is BY FAR the most common.

These are the lego blocks a song is built with. They all join up together and there are no gaps. The bumps are all evenly spaced, but a wall built with six-bump bricks will have a different look and feel from a wall built out of eight-bump bricks.

Try listening to, or singing, these tunes and working out whether they are in 3- or 4-time:

She’ll be coming round the mountain, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Happy Birthday, Verdi’s La donna è mobile, Oh my darling Clementine – anything you like, really.

Because it’s hard to count and sing, use your left hand to tap where you think the strong beat is and the right hand for the other beats.

Being able to feel the beat, and the metre (whether it’s 4, 2 or 3 or 1anda2anda) comes with practice. If you can feel where the strong beat is at the beginning of the bar it helps you to stay with the other musicians and find your way back in when you get lost.

Singers and musicians who don’t read music need to know what a bar is because it is how we measure the music.  You don’t say, “Come in when I’ve played this intro for 14.2 seconds”, you say, “Come in after 8 bars”.

NB: If you are American (it’s all right, you can’t help it), you will find the word “measure” used instead of bar, and bar-lines may be referred to as “bars”.

What to look for on the page

This is what a musical bar looks like:

It is the space in between the two lines. These are the bar-lines.

American terms: Measure instead of Bar, and (confusingly) Bar instead of Bar-line.

You will see the bars are like little bricks building the music.

Here’s a set of four bars – a lot of songs and pieces are built out of four-bar sections.

In written music you will sometimes see little numbers written above the stave at the beginning of each line – these are the bar numbers. They can be very useful for knowing where you are (particularly in those songs where you sing the same words a lot and it’s very hard to know which “Put a little love” you’re supposed to start at this time.

One more thing:  Each bar has the same number of beats and the tempo keeps going.  So every bar lasts the same amount of time.  In written music, how long a bar is on the page will depend on how many notes there are in it, and on the lyrics, if it’s a song. 

Here’s an example from a real score.  Notice the bar number (17) at the beginning of the line. Try singing the line to get a feel for it. Can you tap out the pulse while you do this?

Bar 20 is much smaller than the others, but that’s because it has one word, one long note, filling the whole bar. It lasts for the same four beats as the other bars.

Got it?

I hope this makes sense. Get in touch if you have any questions or comments.

There will be more on time, next time.

Vocab of the week:


Bar – it’s really important to understand this basic unit of music


Two, three or four beats in a bar

Sidebar for poetry nerds

If you’ve studied poetry you may know metre as the difference between the sound of

Do you remember an inn, Miranda, Do you remember an inn?” and

I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills” or

 “Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack”

In musical terms this is a rhythm.  The metre is the underlying strong beat – all of these work on a 4-beat pattern, with the second strong beat coming on “Do,” “floats”, and “salt”.


Don’t Fear the Theory – 1

Welcome to Don’t Fear the Theory, an introduction to music theory for everyone, particularly people who make music already.  Each week’s section will take about five minutes to read, and will have ideas for you to explore further if you want to.

The first aspect of music we’re going to explore is PULSE.

You know what a pulse is, right?  It’s a place where you can feel your heartbeat.  If we can’t find your pulse, you are in serious trouble.

Your pulse keeps going the whole time.  If you’ve just run upstairs you will be able to feel your pulse really strongly. If you’re asleep or eating your tea, you don’t even feel it, but it’s there all the time, keeping you alive.

The pulse in a piece of music is the heartbeat that keeps it going all the time.  It’s a regular beat.  Sometimes it’s really obvious, in a piece of music with a drumbeat.  Sometimes it’s hard to hear when the music has long notes and no drums. But it’s there all the time.   

When your foot taps to a piece of music or you feel like clapping along, that’s the pulse that you are feeling.   People talk about clapping “to the beat” but I’m going to use the word beat very specifically, for ONE unit of the pulse.  The pulse is made of a series of equal beats.

What you need to understand about the pulse is that it’s still going on when you have a long, long note, or a silence.  Each note and silence has to be the right length so that the pulse keeps going.

If the pulse stops or is uneven, the music doesn’t feel right. As the graphic at the top of the page shows, a regular heart beat is healthy, and an uneven one is worrying. If you’re playing or singing, you have to keep that pulse going.  It’s a bit like a video game where the background scrolls along and you have to keep up with it.  You have to feel the pulse in your body, and communicate it to your audience.

The pulse can be any speed.   We measure it in beats per minute, like a nurse measures your pulse. The speed of the pulse is called the Tempo.   That just means “time” in Italian, the language that is used extensively for instructions in classical music.

Try tapping along to these different pieces of music and feeling the different speeds:

The slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto in G – about 72 bpm*

*You’ll find that different performers of classical pieces will choose slightly different tempi (that’s the plural of tempo).

Ever fallen in love with someone by the Buzzcocks – about 178 bpm

The Dies Irae from the Mozart Requiem – about 148 bpm

This is 84 beats per minute 

We can use a gizmo called a metronome to give us a steady pulse at a certain tempo – here’s a real-life clockwork one, and two digital apps that do the same job.

Vintage wooden metronome music timer on the white background

I’ve used my phone app to work out the tempo of the tracks above. You tap along and it tells you the speed. It’s very hard to tap consistently. Trying to keep an absolutely regular pulse going is hard and gives you a lot of respect for drummers.

On recording software you get a click-track so that if you are singing and playing you stay in time.

If you sing in a choir or play in a band, the pulse is what your conductor is showing you with their hands. It’s the ESSENTIAL thing. Everybody needs to feel the same pulse for us to make music together.

Something to try:

Turn on the radio to a random music station.  Can you tap along regularly to whatever is playing?  Use a hand on your thigh – it generally feels less stupid than clapping.

Try a different station in a different style – Kerrang! or Jazz FM.

Try another station – maybe Classic FM or Radio 3.

Are different genres of music easier to tap along to?

I’m keeping comments open on these pages – let me know how you get on!

Vocab of the week:

PULSE – heartbeat of the music, a succession of regular beats.

BEAT – one unit of pulse.

TEMPO – speed of the pulse

METRONOME / CLICK TRACK – device for generating a pulse at a particular tempo

What to look for on the page:

The information about the tempo of the pulse is at the top left of the piece.  There may be a metronome mark showing how many beats per minute, or just a descriptive word telling you whether it’s fast, slow, or moderate – or tell you about the mood: lively, melancholy, or jaunty.

Don’t Fear the Theory – Introduction

The map is not the territory

For 2022, I’ve decided to publish a series of posts looking at the basics of music theory.  

This is aimed at people who sing or play music already, and want to know more about musical terminology and notation.  You can pick’n’mix your way through and just pay attention to the things that interest you, but if you follow it week by week you should end up with a good understanding of musical theory. I’m going to try and make it very focused and break things down into simple elements.

Let me say, right at the beginning, that you can be an astounding musician – a composer as well as a performer – without knowing how to read and write music. Paul McCartney, anyone?  Now that we have recording technology, we can share our music without making marks on a page.  Neither path is better.

But, if you’re interested, I think it’s really useful to be able to read and write music.  It’s not rocket science and it means you can read tunes rather than having to remember them. It’s a whole lot easier than learning to read and write English.

Now, if you think back to reading and writing – you didn’t start learning to do those until you had done quite a lot of talking and listening, did you? It’s important to listen and understand the concepts before we start writing them down.  This is why I chose today’s subtitle: The Map is Not the Territory.

Music is what you hear.  What is printed or written on the page is not music, just as a folded Ordnance Survey sheet is not Snowdonia.

For each item, I will first of all give you examples and explain how it sounds.  Then we will learn the symbols and how it is written down. 

This course is about standard Western classical notation, and we will use examples from rock, pop, jazz and folk songs as well as classical compositions.  There are myriad genres of music across the world about which I know nothing, so I’m not going to talk about them.

I’m going to be very specific about terminology, to help us get the concepts clear in our heads.  Even so, there are times when the same word may mean different things in different contexts.

One of the confusing things about music is that it uses words that have more than one meaning. Think about the word, “note”, for instance.  It can mean the key on a keyboard (the black notes), the sound you hear (hold that note), or the squiggle on the page (the last note in bar 3).  These words may also have other everyday meanings as well, to add to the possible confusion.

I am based in the UK so I will use British terminology, but I will refer to American terminology because it’s so prevalent, and it can be confusing if you are not aware of the alternative terms.

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for this series.  Part 1, Pulse, is coming soon…

Singing together better

Just before the end of 2021, I led a session with my Thursday group at Under the Stars.  This is a group of adults with learning disabilities and/or autism, and we play instruments, write songs and sing together.

My new colleague, the lovely Maddie Morris, couldn’t come into work as she was waiting for the results of a PCR test, but she had planned this activity and she joined us on Zoom.

We were getting ready to sing Christmas carols together – in more of a choir style than a band style, and we wanted the group to think about improving their own performance. We’d chosen Away in a Manger and Maddie suggested we find a recording of a choir singing the song beautifully.  

We listened, and then asked the group what it was that made the performance so good. 

We ended up with something very simple and very profound. Sorry, is that too poncey?  I mean, the group came up with six aspects that cover an awful lot of what makes a performance great, or unique.  It was so good that I had to share it here.

1:         All in time and nobody was rushing.

Excellent.  This is exactly where I would put this: at the top of the list.  All the singers were in time with each other, and nobody was going faster or slower.  This is the absolute bedrock of singing together.  It’s the main purpose of having a conductor – to have a visual cue that each singer can follow so that the timing stays constant and the singers progress at the same speed.  

2:         Everybody was in lovely tune.

This is such a perfect expression of the pitch being spot on.  In lovely tune.  I will start using this on a regular basis as a goal.

3:         Some people were singing deep and some high.

It’s a very simple observation and it adds to the beauty of the piece – everybody sticks to their own line, be it unison or harmony. Some deep and some high.

4:         Not forcing – singing calmly

This led to a fun conversation about how we use different voices for different songs and at different times – for instance, singing a baby to sleep or at a football match.  In a choir setting, we usually want to have this feeling of not forcing the voice, an easy flowing tone with no “edge” to it. Everybody was singing in the same way, using the same kind of tone.

5:         It sparkled like it was in church

I love this comment!  This description of the acoustic of a cathedral is lovely.  We can’t often choose what room we sing in – but it’s good to be aware that it affects how we sound.  We talked about when we make a recording we can change settings to make something sound as though it was sung in a bigger, more echoey place.

6:         Soft and gentle, then strong and louder

Changes in dynamic (volume control) make a song more interesting.  This is different from 4, the tone, and it’s important to know which one you want to change.

We did not plant any of these ideas in advance, or guide the discussion in a particular direction. The learners simply said what they heard.  We introduced the musical terms – timing, pitch, harmony, tone, acoustic, dynamic, which people may or may not remember – and we also made a little icon for each one.  Now when we sing our songs we can talk about which of these aspects could be improved to make the song the best it can be.

The power, and responsibility, of choosing Christmas music

Singing together is something that people do at Christmas more than at any other time of year – unless, maybe, they are football or rugby fans.  The sound of a choir – especially with the frosty echo you get outside – seems to suggest tinsel and snowflakes.  In fact, in the song It Feels Like Christmas from The Muppet Christmas Carol, that’s the first line.
“It’s in the singing of a street-corner choir…”

Starting the season of singing Christmas songs in choir – for a musical director – is a microcosm of preparing for Christmas. Anyone who has had responsibility for buying presents and planning festivities will recognise the feeling:  How am I going to make sure it’s good enough this year?  I could work really hard and some people might still be disappointed. Expectations are high, and the emotions are super-charged after the blip of Christmas 2020. It has to be special, and magical, and give us the tingly feeling. 

We have such a big back-catalogue of Christmas songs now that we have to leave out somebody’s favourite every year.  And what about all the songs we haven’t sung yet? I’ve started arranging It Feels Like Christmas but we haven’t got time to learn it.  I’ve always thought What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding would fit beautifully in a Christmas programme. I keep finding, arranging and writing new things but to put them into the programme something else has to give way.  

There has to be room for a new song, most years – there was a time when we didn’t know Gaudete or Hail Smiling Morn, after all.  But this year I think not. We want to be able to recapture the joy of singing our old favourites, and that won’t happen without a bit of work.

Do we go for a big set of songs and race through them – which runs the risk that people sing all the same mistakes as in 2019 plus a few more, and new members of the choir just hang on by the skin of their teeth?  Do we focus on a few songs in more detail and hope that the singers appreciate rediscovering them and don’t get frustrated?

There are always a couple of people who choose to opt out of choir while we are doing our Christmas set.  I completely understand this.  Some people don’t want to sing anything on a Christian theme, because they are atheist, or anti-organised religion, or have another faith. Some people just find the emotional overload of the Christmas songs too much. I’m reminded of one of the checklists in The Sloane Ranger Handbook (which we thought was very funny in 1983): “*Don’t cry at funerals, *Do cry when you sing Christmas carols.”

The power of Christmas songs to touch the heartstrings is undeniable.  Is it because we have heard them year after year since we were very small? Is it because we sang them with our grandparents, parents, schoolfriends – all the important people down the years – and now sing them with children and grandchildren? We miss the people who are no longer with us, and the people we no longer are.  

A few thoughts about breathing

All things share the same breath
The beast, the tree, the man
They all share the same breath

Chief Seattle

Breathing is part of what defines a living thing. It links us with other living things, as this lovely quotation shows. When we breathe, we take in what is essential for life – more than food, more than light, we need it constantly, every minute of every day, to stay alive.

Most of the time, however, we are not even aware of respiration. Unless we are stretching ourselves physically, or we are emotionally upset, our breath is something we take for granted. 

Breath has spiritual overtones.  The word “spirit” itself comes from the Latin “spirare”, to breathe.  It seems to make sense that if a person dies when they stop breathing, that their essence leaves the body with the breath.  

The word “inspiration” literally means breathing in.  We imagine the silent invisible force that produces art or heroism is part of the air, that it can be breathed in. Breath gives power to creativity.

Breath is the engine of singing. The movement of air makes the larynx vibrate. By controlling our breath, we channel the air through our voicebox and the passages in the head – our nose and mouth – so that it creates a sound.

When singing, we need to channel the breath without force, finding a balance between control and relaxation, getting rid of tension to allow the voice to come out in all its glory. We have to pay attention to the breath and develop our ability to breathe consciously, taking that quick silent inbreath and controlling a long melodious outbreath.  

Breathing exercises are part of Hindu and Buddhist traditions of meditation, as well as every choral warmup. To breathe consciously and slowly calms the mind and helps us to simply be in the moment.  Learning to be aware of our breath and make each breath last longer has benefits way beyond the choir rehearsal. 

Another important thing happens when we breathe: our body transforms the air.  What we breathe in and what we breathe out are not the same.  It seems more magical because the breath is invisible.  We breathe in air that is 21% oxygen, we breathe out air that is only 16% oxygen.  We change the air around us.

When we sing, we go beyond this and shape the air to create sound, which communicates and moves people.  Liz Powers, a fantastic choir director, described what we do as “creating magic with humans and air.”

I started with one quotation and I’ll finish with another, a very short poem by Adrian Mitchell, written on the death of one of his heroes.  

He breathed in air, he breathed out light.
Charlie Parker was my delight.

Adrian Mitchell

Just One Thing…

No, this is not a Columbo tribute – although I am a fan of Peter Falk’s scruffy detective.  This is a Radio 4 series of short 15-minute talks. Dr Michael Mosley, the one who got everybody fasting and doing HIIT, has come up with things we can do to increase our physical and mental wellbeing.  

They are all simple, like getting some sunshine and eating dark chocolate in moderation.  Last week his prescription for health was – hooray! – that we should sing regularly. Singing for five minutes a day improves your mental and physical health. 

There’s already a page on this site sharing some of the research promoting singing for health.  The findings reported in “Just One Thing” are even more extensive, and fascinating.  

Here are three of the research studies quoted in the programme:

  • Anxiety, fear, fatigue and blood pressure were reduced in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy when they listened to live music.  (I’m intrigued by this – is recorded music less effective?)
  • There is evidence that singing boosts your immune system – immunoglobulin A levels were higher when people sang rather than just listening to music. 
  • It can also help people manage chronic pain by stimulating endocannabinoids produced by the body. A study at the University of Nottingham found that after 30 mins of group singing, the level of endocannabinoids in the blood rose by 42%. 

There is a great deal of evidence where people report significant reductions in their symptoms of stress, but science can be sceptical about results that consist of people telling us how they feel.  Immunoglobulin A and endocannabinoids are chemicals which can be measured, analysed and logged in a spreadsheet, proving our physiology is affected by singing.

The special quality of singing together is that it has multiple effects all at once – improving posture, memory, lung function and stimulating reward pathways in the brain, as well as building self-confidence and providing social connections.  

Most people acknowledge that music affects mood, and that listening to, or making, music can improve our mental health.  When we listen to music our bodies tune in to it – the pulse of the music changes our heartrate, blood pressure, and the rate at which we breathe.  These physical changes affect our thoughts and feelings – and the chemical balance in our bodies. 

As Laurence Sterne put it, 

“A man’s body and his mind… are exactly like a jerkin and a jerkin’s lining; rumple the one, you rumple the other.”

Maybe we can see singing as a kind of psychic iron, smoothing out those rumples.

And “rumpled” brings us right back to Lieutenant Columbo!

Singing in the Park Part II

 We’d decided to sing on the flat car park outside Meersbrook Hall.  The barrier is shut at weekends so there wouldn’t be any vehicles there, and opposite the hall there is a grassy slope, just right for sitting on, lending the place an amphitheatre feel.  

I started laying out the coloured cones to show people where to stand, pacing out the gaps. I’d been nervous all day, feeling slightly sick. How would we sound? Would the one bass survive? Would the tenors and sopranos be able to hear each other? Would the occasion get people too excited to concentrate? Would they remember to watch me?  Would my amplifier work? Would I forget the words or steer people wrong?  Would it spoil the balance, or help it, if I sang with the sopranos? I decided I would sing with them if there were only three.  I knew that we would have an audience of at least eight, as well as a couple of choir members who did not feel ready to perform but wanted to listen.

What was it for, this performance? It wasn’t linked to any event. We hadn’t promoted it much, because most of us are still nervous about crowds. It was a date plucked out of the air, and a time designed to maximise participation. I’d just felt we needed something to look forward to, a time and a place to say, “Hey, we’ve learnt some songs!”

I saw the first singer arrive in turquoise and I smiled.  She was happy, excited, wearing something special.  I’d forgotten this feeling. More people arrived, in ones and twos, and greeted each other warmly. The cones were done. My music stand was up, set list anchored to it with a heavy-duty clothes peg (Where were my other pegs? Why did I only have one? On cue, a gust of wind blew across the car park.) The sun peeked out from behind a cloud like a blessing. 

There were singers there who had not made it to a rehearsal for several weeks but had been practising at home, and some who have loyally attended every practice come rain or shine.  This particular group of people had not been all together for a year and a half. It felt like an Occasion.

We were ready. I initiated a little warm-up, for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s, since I’d not done anything vocal all day.  It was still only 4.28: one singer and a couple of expected audience members – including our chairperson, Isobel – had not yet arrived so we sang a few short scales. There was an air of expectation, into which rode Isobel, on the glorious semi-recumbent tandem she shares with her husband.  They waved like royalty, took their seats, and the occasion was officially open.

The singing was everything I’d hoped for – rhythmic, unified, with some lovely light and shade. The richness of harmony in E Malama was particularly gorgeous – it was worth taking the risk of those four-part songs when the number of singers in each part was so unequal. 

We sang for a full half-hour – and for our choir, thirty minutes is a long programme. As we reached the end, I knew that organising this small happening was completely worthwhile.

We were there to celebrate singing, joining together to raise our voices, and being a band – bound together by something that unites us.

Singing in the Park

This is a weird one – I don’t know whether to shout about it or not. On Saturday 11th September we are doing the closest thing to a performance that we have done since December last year. It’s similar to that event, when we sang carols and Christmas songs at the top of Meersbrook Park.

We’ll be singing the songs we have been practising over the last few months. We would like to share them with other people, but I still can’t help feeling that it’s somehow irresponsible to invite a crowd along.

What makes this different from the Christmas sing is that we are planning to sing in harmony, and to sing songs that the audience will not know and join in with. This is more nerve-racking, obviously, more vulnerable, but also very exciting. We’ve always said that performance is not the goal of our choir, and we welcome singers who choose not to perform. Nevertheless, it feels great to have something to work towards, to feel we have a gift to offer people and an occasion to rise to.

We will be standing spread out with our markers, and will keep our distance from any audience (I am quite prepared for there to be no audience, and we will sing anyway!) This makes hearing each other tricky and the sound may suffer, but we hope people will understand. All our Walled Garden rehearsals have helped us get used to singing without being side by side.

If you’d like to come along, we will be singing at the top of the park, near Bishops’ House, at 4.30pm. It won’t be a long programme, not much more than 20 minutes. We look forward to seeing you.