Piping Today #95, 2019

I have been teaching private lessons on the pipes and other instruments for close to 30 years now.  Those of you who have done any teaching for a decade or more can understand my experience that every student is unique, and brings a new combination of strengths and weaknesses.  It’s to be expected.  It’s a good thing.

But there has been one ‘weakness’ that the vast majority of students of mine have consistently needed help with: decoding time signatures (or metre signatures), both the top and bottom numbers, but especially the bottom.  Pretty much the only exceptions to this rule have been those who previously studied music theory and are advanced players of other instruments.  I have even seen this chink in the armour of those playing in Grade 1 pipe bands.

Even after having studied the piano for 10 years, and the pipes for eight – all the while using written music for both – I myself never fully understood time signatures and rhythm until I got roped into playing handbells at my father’s church – a gig that required very focused counting.  Taking a music theory class and joining a wind ensemble soon thereafter sealed the deal.

To be sure, it is not essential to have a full and perfect understanding of time signatures in order to produce great music.  Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton have all confessed to being unable to read music.  But having this understanding can surely help, particularly if you weren’t already showing undeniable signs of musical genius from a very young and tender age. 

Time signatures are not ever going to generate eye-popping headlines in the paper, nor tens of millions of ‘likes’ on our little glowing screens, but the good news is that they are genuinely useful and uncomplicated.  Familiarising yourself with them will deepen your musicality.

Have I convinced you to take a closer look then?  Of course I have, so now consider the fancy-fonted numbers to the right.  Can you describe, precisely, what each of those numbers is signifying when it comes to written music?

If you’re like most of my students, you might offer that the top number has to do with how many beats are in a bar.  And you’d be correct.  But before I ask you about the bottom number, do you know what ‘beats in a bar’ refers to?  Probably, but let me help flesh it out just in case.  When music theorists refer to the ‘beat’, we are referring to stronger rhythmic pulses in the music that we are experiencing.  For our purposes, this generally translates to a basic foot tap, or a footstep if you are marching.  A bar (or measure, in American-speak), refers to a consistent section of music.  If you’ll allow me to compare a bar of music to a picket fence, the bar is all of the fencing in between the support posts, and the bar lines are the posts themselves.  In this analogy, each picket, or vertical board, represents a beat.

A time signature with a top number of 2 therefore means that there will be two evenly-spaced pickets between each post, two evenly-spaced foot taps within each bar. Easy peasy.

But do you remember what the bottom number refers to?  This question normally elicits some insecure guesses or downright silence from most of my new students.  The answer is less obvious, as in a way, it has more to do with the width of the individual pickets that make up the fence.

The bottom number, a 4 in this case, tells us what type of note – what rhythmic value – is being assigned to the beat.  From the top number of the time signature, we know how frequently we’re tapping the beat; but what, exactly, are we tapping our foot to?  Each quaver, or each crotchet, or each minim, or something else?

And this is where my bias against British nomenclature will be revealed, eliciting sudden gasps of horror from my legions of loyal readers.  The 4 in our above example refers to the crotchet, but that fact is not at all obvious to your average student of music.  At first glance, the number 4 and the word ‘crotchet’ have absolutely nothing common.  What is slightly more obvious is that, in the US, that bottom 4 corresponds to a quarter note, a note that makes up 1/4 of a whole note (or semibreve, in British parlance).  If the bottom number were a 2 or an 8, it would be referring to a 1/2 note (minim) or 1/8 note (semiquaver), respectively.

Now we are merely inches away from cracking the code of a 2/4 time signature: there are two beats in each segment of music, two pulses in each bar; two pickets between each fence post.  And it’s the crotchet, or quarter note, that’s getting the beat.  If we continue the imperfect fence analogy, the 4 might be comparable to a picket that’s 1/4 of the width of one of the widest picket sizes available.

It’s important to note that this ‘time signature’ (often called ‘metre’) is also a rule.  You cannot, by decree, fit three ordinary crotchets or quarter notes into a bar if the time signature calls for two.  For this fence design, there isn’t room for three pickets between the fence posts.  If you put only one crotchet in that space, then there will be a gap in the fence and all of your sheep will escape, to the ruin of you and your family.  If your fence design simply must have three pickets between the posts, if your tune undeniably has three strong pulses per musical segment, then you’d better change the rule so that the top number is a 3.  If your fence design calls for wider or narrower pickets, then we’ll need to change bottom number – normally to a power of two: 2, 8 or 16, for example.  Remember that we’re dealing with fractions in a way, and that the bigger the bottom number, the shorter the note duration.

Here’s another very important note: time signatures don’t really have anything to do with tempo, though they sometimes can give an initial impression of speed.  Technically speaking, time signatures are all about the organisation of beats and beat groupings.  In its most basic musical sense, the word tempo – Italian for time – has to do with how fast you’re moving alongside the fence and its pickets.  Are you crawling on your knees, walking moderately fast, jogging, or riding atop a galloping sheep?  That’s what tempo is generally about, not the time signature.  2/4 can be achingly slow, moderately paced, Mach 2, or anything in between.

To further clarify, if you have the same exact melody written out in three different metres as in the graphic above – one in 2/4, another in 2/2, and another in 2/32 – they will all look different on the page, but they will all sound and feel the same if the indicated tempo is the same (e.g. 96 beats per minute).  Whether the beat-note is a crotchet, minim, or demi-semi-quaver depends more on convention, which may ultimately be based on how clear and easy it is to read on the page.  We pipers are far more used to reading quicksteps in 2/4.  And quicksteps may be notated that way because, for example, writing it in 2/32 would be cumbersome to read: the pulse notes would be demi-semi-quavers, or 32nd-notes, each having a trio of flags or beams.  The faster runs within the tune would then require hemi-demi-semi-quavers and semi-hemi-demi-semiquavers (64th and 128th notes) requiring four and five flags or beams per note.  Ultimately that would result in at least four times as much ink as the 2/4 version, making a page of music much more visually cluttered.  Sure, you could also write the same tune out in a 2/1 metre, in which the semibreve (whole note) gets the beat, but that might give the initial impression, visually, that this is a much slower tune.  The beat groupings would then be less visually apparent, too.

One final note: if you thought the mentions of sheep in this article were inane and unnecessary ewe-phemisms, you’d be right.  But you may nonetheless appreciate the following: according to Google’s dictionary, the origins of the word ‘signature’ (as in time signature), include signatura, a late-Latin term once used to refer to the markings on sheep.

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  20. Theory Top-Up: Elaborating on chord based harmonies
  21. Theory Top-Up: writing chord-based harmonies for slow airs
  22. Theory Top Up: harmonies that imitate uilleann pipe regulators
  23. Theory Top-Up: harmonies derived from hymns
  24. Theory Top-Up: learning tunes by ear
  25. Theory Top-Up: the signature of time