Blog

The Music Schop is a resource for worship musicians and pastors. Song analysis of popular worship songs, theory lessons, reviews of worship resources, and tips and tricks for drummers, keyboard players, guitar players, bass players – the entire band. Written by Chris Schopmeyer.

Theory Thursday: Part Five, Breaking Down Time Signatures

Last week’s post looked at the theoretical side of bars and time signatures. This week let's look at the practical application of individual time signatures. 

To demonstrate the importance of this, I can think of nothing better than this blast from my past: 

Ouch, there is a lot to learn here. A few observations: 

  • Starting with the right time signature makes a big difference. Could the two starts be more different?
  • Yours truly was the MD and the pianist. I've got to take responsibility for this disaster. 
  • The band is so bad the soloist doesn’t panic. He starts laughing!
  • The lyric guy displays “one more time around” on the screen as we restart. 

So, what in the world happened? I’ll revisit that question at the end of the post. 

Time Signatures in Modern Churches 

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) reports biannually the top 100 songs used in worship services across the United States. I was able to make a few interesting observations:

  • 86% are in 4/4
  • 8% are in 3/4
  • 6% are in 6/8 

While theoretically there are scores of time signatures that could be used, there are really only three being used in modern worship music.  

Transient

4/4 Time 

In 4/4 time, also referred to as "common time", there are 4 beats per bar (top number) and the quarter note gets the beat (bottom number). 

Time signatures don't just define how a bar is constructed, but they also imply how the bar should be weighted – which beats are emphasized. In traditional 4/4, beats 1 and 3 are emphasized. These are what I call the anchor beats. Speak this out loud, emphasizing the numbers in bold:

One two three four; One two three four

Your anchor beats are where you will find phrases begin, lyrics are emphasized, and grooves are established. 

Take for example number 14 on CCLI's top 100 list, "Forever Reign". 

Although the drummer is playing every quarter note, beats one and three have a slight emphasis, you especially feel this as the audience starts clapping. Additionally, listen to the lyrical phrase. Beats one and three are emphasized and the key words (syllables) all fall on these beats.

You are good, You are good when there's nothing good in me....
Oh, I'm running to Your arms, I'm running to Your arms...

Backbeat

The backbeat emphasizes the 'off' beats in 4/4 time. If 1 and 3 are the anchor beats, 2 and 4 are the off beats. More than anything else, I think the backbeat has been the defining characteristic of modern popular music over the last sixty years. The backbeat is what makes you want to dance or clap your hands.

Interesting story, when I was 22 years-old I applied to be the worship leader at a church. Things went well, and I was scheduled to come lead worship for the church as a last step in the process. I sat down with the pastor the week before to discuss the music, and no joke, he said he had changed his mind about the music for the church and no longer wanted drums or any percussive instruments. I asked him why. He said "I've come to believe that a strong backbeat can lead someone to sin."

No joke. He said that. After staring at him for a good ten seconds, I cocked my head and said, "are you for real?"

I never made it to Sunday – thank the Lord. I often wonder about that pastor and his church....

Regardless of whether it causes you to sin (it doesn't), the backbeat is the staple of modern worship music. The backbeat is almost always defined by the drummer's snare. Kick patterns change, strumming patterns change, but the common thread through all 4/4 songs are not the anchor notes, but the backbeat. The more the anchor notes are emphasized, the straighter the song will feel. The more the anchor notes are implied and the backbeat is emphasized, the groovier it will feel.

3/4 Time

In 3/4 time, there are 3 beats per bar (top number) with the quarter note getting the beat (bottom number). The waltz is in 3/4 time: One two three One two three. 

The drummer in 3/4 time will most often play the kick on beat 1 and the snare on beat 3. Check out "Jesus Paid It All", number 76 in the top 100 worship songs so far this year.

As music continues to mature, you'll find that bands, their drummers in particular, are getting more creative in defining these time signatures. Take Hillsong Live's "Stronger". Notice that in this pattern beat 1 is definitely still the anchor – all the chord changes, groove emphasis, and lyrical phrases land on beat 1 – but the drummer is emphasizing both beat 1 and 3 with the kick and placing the snare on 2 and the "and of 3". 

6/8 Time

In 6/8 time, there are six beats per bar (top number) with the eighth note getting the beat (bottom number). Beats 1 and 4 are emphasized, creating two groups of three: One two three four five six. This can also be thought of like a big 2 count: One La Li  Two La Li   One La Li  Two La Li. 

The drummer in 6/8 time will generally place the kick on beat one and the snare on beat four (or the big 2). Check out Tomlin's "Indescribable". 

3/4 vs. 6/8

You may have noticed that 3/4 and 6/8 are mathematically equal. So why have both in music? Great question! 

We know that in 3/4 the quarter note gets the beat. Quarter notes are made up of two eighth notes, right? Therefore 3/4 is made up of three groups of two eighth notes.

In 6/8 the eighth note gets the beat, allowing for two groups of three eighth notes. This creates a completely different groove.

Transient

Conclusion

There are really only three time signatures that make up modern worship music: 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. An understanding of how these time signatures operate and are weighted will make a big difference in the effectiveness of your band. 

I started this post with a video of our band's crash and burn back in 2009. So what happened?

  • The previous song was in 6/8 
  • The eighth note pulse between the songs was almost identical. The previous song in 6/8 was at 160 bpm (eighth note gets the beat). The song that crashed was in 4/4 at 80 bpm (quarter note gets the beat – which means the eighth note is at 160, the same tempo as the previous song.) 
  • The piano part of the second song started with a pattern 3 sixteenth notes. The pattern of three sixteenth notes in 4/4 creates a syncopated feel. In 6/8 it is a natural, straight feel. 
  • Although the click track changed, some folks in the band were still feeling 6/8 and didn't switch.

Time signatures make a big difference. Understanding the theory behind how they work will help you avoid a crazy mistake like the one we experienced. More importantly though, it will help you become a confident leader. The Church needs competent and confident leaders in our worship leading groups. 

Question: What are some of your most embarrassing moments in your bands? Anything ever go haywire with time signatures?