Time Signatures Part 1
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
Most music is notated with a time signature because there is usually a particular time feeling to a piece and it makes the music easier to learn. In this blog I will be discussing the top number in Time Signatures, which refers to how many beats there are in the bar (single unit/ phrase).
In Western Music the most common feeling is that there are 4 beats per bar. There are two types of
ways that this is felt, in Classical music it is mostly felt as Strong - Weak - Slightly Strong - Weak ( 1 - 2 - 3 - 4), for instance Vivaldi's Spring from Four Seasons. In Jazz and Pop however it is usually felt as Weak - Strong - Weak - Strong (1 - 2- 3 - 4). It is quite easy to identify this once you realise that the main drum beats usually emphasise the 2 and 4 beats. This happens in so many songs one such example is Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson.
Also quite commonly used is 2 and 3 time. 2 time is often used in marches (e.g. the Radetzky March) and is felt as Strong - Weak (1 - 2). 3 time however is always used in Waltzes (e.g. Dmitri Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2), it is felt as Strong - Weak - Weak (1 - 2 - 3). Other music which is in 3 time often has that waltz-like feeling. For instance, 'The wind' by Allen Stone has that swaying, dancing feeling.
Although we mostly hear 4,3 and 2 time, you could create a piece of music in any time; 59, 67,89, 113... but these would be thought of as quite ludicrous because no-one wants to count up to 59 and you are much more likely to get lost in the count and lose where you are in the piece. Thus, composers often subdivide their pieces and see where the stronger beats land in smaller phrases. Sometimes this results in some very cool time signatures.
Some typical strange time feelings are: 5, 7,11. 5 time is mostly felt in two ways: Strong - Weak - Weak - Strong - Weak (1 - 2 - 3 - 4 -5 ) and Strong - Weak - Strong - Weak - Weak (1 - 2 - 3 - 4 -5 ). A great example of 5 time is Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five' and more recently 'Tolerate it' by Taylor Swift. 7 time is felt usually in 3 different ways: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -7, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -7 and 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -7 a good example of this is, 'Spoonman' by Soundgarden. 11 time can be divisible in multiple ways, one such way is feeling 6 beats and then 5 beats. An example of 11 time is...
Another weird thing that can occur with time signatures is that the time can change within a piece. An amazing piece that does this is a song by the Arctic Monkeys called, 'Piledriver Waltz'. It is a great twist on a typical Waltz as it starts off with an instrumental section in 4 time, then switches to 6 time in the verse and then finally comes to 3 time in the chorus for the Waltz section. Changing time signatures is more complex and there are not so many pieces that do this but it is good to be aware of.
Another time feeling to be aware of is that of Free time, where the music's pulse can be played with and interpreted by the performer. This is least commonly used nowadays as it can be very difficult to learn and perform with other people. It was used however a lot in old, vocal chant music. A great example of free time is, Gnossienne no 1. by Erik Satie.
I hope this gave you a better idea of the different time feelings you can hear in music.
Wishing you luck in your musical journey
P.s. Press on the link for a table of music in different time signatures. I've designed this as a chart and as a quiz so you can choose to either listen to more examples, or test your musical ability at differentiating time signatures. I will update this regularly with more examples that I find.
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