Category Archives: Don’t Fear the Theory

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:

Metre

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

Bar-line

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”.

PULSE

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…