As I've led bands over the years, I've been surprised how many musicians don’t really understand the measure. Both self-taught and trained musicians can undervalue how bars and phrases work. This causes all sorts of problems.
It's easy to think about measuring in the context of construction. Let's say I want to build a tree house for my twins. But imagine I start without knowing the difference between centimeters and inches. Maybe I’m too lazy for a level, so I eyeball everything. And while I labor over getting just the right color of paint, I spend little time considering weight distribution.
I can build this tree house. But will you let your kid in it?
What about roads? Do I have to know the rules of ‘right of way’ in order to drive? Do I need to have a sense for the length of a mile? Must I know a double yellow line should not be crossed? Do roads even need to have lines at all?
The answer to these questions is no. But we can all agree: a world without lines would be a world with a lot of accidents.
The same is true for bands. I witness fender benders almost every week.
- Drummers play through a break
- Bass players go back to the verse a bar early
- Guitar players play the wrong strumming pattern
- Music directors count off songs in 3/4 with "one, two, three, four"
Understanding how to measure music matters if we want to have tight bands.
Reading Time Signatures
Time signatures define our measures. They tell us
- What note gets the beat
- How many beats are in a bar
- Where the accents lie
I have no doubt my graphic above – with all the time signatures – looks a little scary to some readers. But time signatures are pretty simple to figure out once you know how to read them. Let's stick with our old friend 4/4 as we unpack this.
What note gets the beat?
The bottom number tells you what gets the beat (bottom=beat). So finding the beat is pretty easy:
- Replace the top number with 1.
- Now say the fraction out loud.
That’s what gets the beat. Therefore, in 4/4 time, the quarter note (1/4) gets the beat. In 6/8 time, the eighth note (1/8) gets the beat.
How many beats per bar?
The top number tells you how many beats are in a bar. In 4/4 there are four quarter notes per bar. In 6/8 there are six eighth notes per bar.
Where do the accents lie?
The last question time signatures answer is where the accents lie. Going back to the tree house analogy, this is the weight distribution question. It is not as easily explained, but let's try it this way.
How many boxes are there above?
What about in this line?
Time signatures tell us how to group music together – the above being a visual representation of 6/8. Just as it is more pleasing to look at an image that has order, so too is it more pleasing to listen to music that has order.
Unfortunately, I don't know a quick and dirty tip for remembering which beats to emphasize in each time signature. You just have to learn them. We will cover this next week.
How we measure music makes a difference. Today we've covered the why question and how to read and understand time signatures. Next week we will unpack the four most common time signatures: how each one feels, associated drum grooves, strumming patterns, and listen to audio examples for each. I will also post the world premiere video of my biggest time signature-related gaffe on stage. It was a doozy. You won't want to miss it!
Until then, I leave you with the intro and verse of a favorite Sting song. "Love Is Stronger Than Justice" features a 7/8 groove that slips in and out of a double-time feel.