In StudyBass Fundamentals I, I introduced you to time signatures which indicate music's meter, or "time." So far throughout the StudyBass Fundamentals curricula, the exercises have been mostly in 4/4 time along with a few in 6/8. You'll remember 4/4 time is also known as “Common Time” because it is so common.
Musicians often feel comfortable and at home in 4/4, but a lot of music is in other meters. In this lesson block we will more thoroughly look at meter and time signatures. While the concepts of meter and time signatures are simple, there is a lot of nuance to learn and understand. Understanding these nuances will help you play in meters other than 4/4 and open up many new worlds to you.
What is Meter?
In general, the word “meter” simply means a measure of something. You've seen its linguistic roots in other words like metric, symmetry and semester.
In music, meter is the measure of how recurring rhythmic pulses are organized.
What is a Time Signature?
We discussed time signatures before, but let's review them. And, if this review is too basic for you, skip ahead for the new stuff.
A time signature is a marking in written musical notation. It is written on the staff to the right of the clef and key signature. The time signature tell musicians the meter, or musical pulse, of the written music.
A time signature consists of two numbers written one on top of the other. The top number tells you how many beats there are in each measure (or “bar”). The bottom number tells you what note value the beat is: a 1 means a whole note (rare to see), 2 means half note, 4 means quarter note, 8 is an eighth, 16 a sixteenth, and so on.
In written music measures are divided by barlines. The rhythms found in each measure must always add up to the number of beats in the time signature.
For instance, 4/4 means each measure must add up to 4 quarter notes. The rhythms can be anything as long as they add up to 4 quarter notes. It could be two half notes. It could be 8 eighth notes. It could be a half note and 4 eighth notes.
So, meter is the pulse of the music, and a time signature is the written musical symbol describing it. But, musicians often use the terms meter, time and time signature interchangeably. Musicians may say, “What's the meter?” or “What time signature is it in?” or “This is in 6/8 time.” Sometimes musicians may just describe the number of beats: “We play that song in seven.” As you understand meter better, you'll know what other musicians are saying.
It's More Than Just Counting
Time signatures tell you how to count the music, but there's more to it than that. Time signatures convey not only the count, but how to feel, play and accent the music.
You'll learn that some time signatures are commonly associated with particular styles like a March, a Waltz or an Irish Jig. So, time signatures give you an immediate idea of how the music should sound right at the beginning of the written music.
Time Signatures as Fractions
You commonly see people describe time signatures as a fraction. 4/4 and 6/8 are definitely fractions, but there's a danger to explaining time signatures as fractions. Most of us were taught in school to reduce fractions when possible. So, 4/4 should become 1/1, and 6/8 should reduce to 3/4, right? In math yes, but not in music.
Different time signatures exist for different musical reasons and shouldn't be reduced. If you reduce time signatures, you will change their musical meaning. As we discuss more about various meters in the coming lessons you will understand the musical differences various time signatures are telling you. So, while you can view time signatures as fractions, don't make the mistake of reducing them. There are important musical reasons why they are not reduced. Someone would have reduced them had it made sense to reduce them.
Why Do We Need Meter?
Why can't we just count any number of beats we want? Why do we count at all?
It's true that, if you can play the music properly, counting or awareness of meter might not be necessary. And, as you get comfortable with various meters, you won't need to count them. You will feel them, sense them. But, the meter is there whether you count it or not.
You have to remember a lot of music theory simply exists to help musicians communicate with each other and play together. Meter helps all of the musicians count, keep their place, feel the music, describe the music and connect rhythmically. Without a common language and understanding about meter, things could fall apart, not sync up right or just get confusing.
What Decides Meter?
[I recommend watching the lesson video to hear all of the examples of what decides meter.]
Meter comes from rhythmical patterns in music. As the patterns repeat, they suggest a measure of time and beats; they suggest a meter.
In most cases all of the instruments play together in the same meter. What every instrument plays helps establish the music's meter.
If you hear some instruments play some long sustained chords with no subdivisions, it is hard to discern what the count is. The long chords could be broken up into any number of beats. As rhythms and accents divide the period between the long chords, the count will reveal itself.
So, it is the music that decides meter. (Remember, music always makes the theory.)
But then, who decides what to call the meter? Who decides the written time signature?
It's the composer or the person transcribing, writing down, the music. They make their decision based on a number of factors.
Often the choice of time signature is obvious. A meter like 4/4 time has been heard so many times that one instantly knows what to call it. And, most styles of music have common, traditional time signatures, too.
Many factors will affect the choice of time signature.
First, how the music is organized will suggest a time signature. Things like the tempo, the harmonic rhythm (meaning the rhythm of the chord changes), rhythmic groupings and melodic phrasing all have an influence. And remember, one has to consider all of the instruments, not just one.
Musical accents are another major factor in selecting the time signature. You probably first think of a musical accents as playing something louder. These are known as dynamic accents. Dynamic accents are very common, but music has other types of accents as well.
Pitches like very high notes or low notes can create an accent. (These are called tonic accents.)
A note or chord's duration can create an accent. These are called agogic accents. [pronounced: ah-GAW-jik]
A timbre, or tonal color, can create an accent. You can create accents and rhythmic patterns with just about every element of music.
Performance and Interpretation
There are still other considerations for selecting a time signature: How easy it is to sightread and perform. How a composer anticipates a performer will play and interpret the written music. For instance, performers may play 8th notes more lightly than quarter notes. If the music piece will have a conductor, they may consider how easy it is to conduct.
So, the music decides the meter and the composer or transcriber decides what to call it in the form of a written time signature. Often the choice will be obvious and simple. Other times there can be several good answers or interpretations.
In the next lessons, we'll look at the finer details of meter and time signatures.