Theory Top-Up: common and cut times

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By TIM CUMMINGS.
Piping Today #98, 2019

Initially, once I had decided to tackle the topic of rhythm in this Theoretically Speaking column, there was a temptation to highlight each metre, or time signature, we encounter in our Scottish piping ceòl beag repertoire, per article  With time signatures as ubiquitous, simple and natural as 4/4, however, I began to doubt the mission because it’s difficult to find sufficient novel and educational tidbits to fill a whole page, much less several pages.  But then again, I can really geek out on this stuff, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to make the ordinary less ordinary.  (If you make it to the end, please let me know if I succeeded.)

Before diving into 4/4 and 2/2, let me offer a quick reminder for those who might benefit from a quick review of how time signatures work: the top number signifies the number of beats (or pulses, or foot taps) in a bar or measure of music.  The bottom number – and this is what so many music students seem to forget – signifies what type of note is assigned that beat: a half-note (minim), a quarter-note (crotchet) or an eighth-note (quaver), normally,  being represented by the numbers 2, 4 and 8, respectively.

Thus, 4/4 time, a metre we encounter with great frequency in our repertoire, refers to a prescribed pattern of four main pulses in a bar, with the quarter-note (crotchet) getting the beat.  It is one of the ‘simple time’ metres, because each of its beats is generally subdivided into twos (as opposed to the triplet beats of ‘compound metres’).  Many of you already know this, and also know that this time signature is commonly referred to as ‘common time’.  If C-Major is “the people’s key” in most Western music, then 4/4 would have to be “the people’s metre”.

The vast majority, by far, of contemporary songs you hear on the radio and on Spotify are in 4/4.  The national  anthems of South Africa, Germany, Canada, Spain, Nigeria, Russia, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, France, Australia, Brazil, arguably India, and many others, are all in 4/4.  (It may not be a coincidence that 4/4 is also a great metre for marching.)  What about the main themes for Braveheart, Black Panther, The King’s Speech, Star Wars, Life is Beautiful, Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Jurassic Park, Frozen, The Avengers, The Lion King, Fast & Furious, Untouchables, The Simpsons, Still Game and Sesame Street?  Yup, 4/4.  Or some of the most requested pipe tunes of all time?  If you answered Scotland the Brave: 4/4.  If you answered Highland Cathedral: 4/4.  If you were being snarky and/or play the uilleann pipes and answered Danny Boy: 4/4.  Auld Lang Syne?  4/4.

[Quick tip for any composers wanting to be successful: employ 4/4.  Quick tip for any composers wanting to be original: avoid 4/4.]

Most of you have seen the familiar substitute symbol for 4/4 used in sheet music: the letter C.  But did you know that in the early days of Western musical notation, the C was not the letter C, but a partial circle that just happened to resemble the letter C?  Indeed, early attempts at designating rhythm involved not metres or time signatures, but mensurations involving symbols of complete or incomplete circles, sometimes with round dots within those circles, and sometimes with vertical lines drawn through the middle of them.  Curiously, during the early Renaissance, there wasn’t a specific metre that was the equivalent of 4/4, but the next closest thing: 2/2.

I have just a few more things to say about 4/4 before we look at ‘cut time’.  First, we pipers most frequently encounter this metre in our ceòl beag when we play strathspeys and aptly-named 4/4 marches.  Second, whereas the previously-discussed 3/4 metre encourages a 1 2 3 (strong •weak•medium) accentuation of each beat, the 4/4 metre generally asks for a 1 2 3 4 (strong •weak•medium•weak) pattern.  Emphasising the beats more distinctly in this way helps marchers and dancers identify the downbeats and thus align their proper foot movements to the appropriate parts of the music.  (You should know this is not the only way to accentuate a 4-beat rhythm.  When learning Indonesian kendang drumming in graduate school, I had to temporarily re-train my brain to accept and perform the fourth beat as the strongest.)

My last point about 4/4 involves the written notation of the notes themselves.  We generally have two accepted stylistic practices regarding the placement of ‘beams’, or connected stem flags, between eighth-notes (quavers) that dwell within the same primary beat.  If, like me, you closely align with the Enneagram Type 1 description, and thus have an eye for detail and a pronounced craving for ‘perfection’ and ‘correctness’, then you may prefer to see quaver runs in 4/4 tunes written like this:

This way of beaming the quavers makes it clear just where each of the four main beats begins and ends.  This is my personal preference, and it is the common, standard way of notating strathspeys.

But you should know that the Music Theory Police frequently look the other way when the same tune is written as such:

I can’t really blame the MTP, because at first glance, the music seems less cluttered, a bit easier to sightread, even though there is slightly more ink on the page.  But the perfectionist in me can’t resist pointing out that there is the potential to lead some musicians to mistakenly conclude that there are really only two primary beat groupings in the bar, each expansive enough to include four quavers.  In which case they would be half-note, or minim beats.  (Thankfully, a misinterpretation as such is unlikely to result in any major
catastrophe.)

This all now brings me to the aforementioned ‘cut common time’, or simply cut time (or sometimes alla breve in classical music circles).  Suppose you were to find yourself marching along to your own piping of the 4/4 march version of Cabar Feidh, and you happened to be going downhill, evermore steeply, and with the influence of gravity you began to march ever faster, with the tune following suit, until everything got so fast that you simply couldn’t move your legs rapidly enough to keep up the tune.  Suddenly, on the brink of stumbling and tumbling, a life-saving flash of inspiration arrives: why not continue playing the tune at Mach 2 speed (because it’s fun), but then just step to every other beat, effectively cutting the number of pulses in each bar in half, from 4 to 2?

Et voilà, my dear readers, we are essentially now talking about cut time, or 2/2, where there are two main beats in a bar, with the half-note (minim) getting the beat.  This is the time signature we most often reserve for reels.

Some of you will be recognising that there has long existed a phenomenon in traditional Scottish music that involves shifting from 4/4 to 2/2 – common time to cut time – a phenomenon that does not involve unsafe, high-speed downhill marching.  It’s the strathspey & reel combo meal, of course. The effect might be more analogous to shifting gears in a car:  when you shift into a higher gear, you are driving faster, but with a lower RPM.  When you shift from a strathspey to a reel, you are playing notes faster, but with your feet tapping at a lower RPM.  Even though the bars and notes are going by more quickly, your feet are still tapping more slowly than they had been during the strathspey because they are now only tapping twice per bar instead of four times – in other words, tapping once per four quavers instead of once per two quavers.

And with this in mind, please note how Caber Feidh is written in both strathspey and reel forms.  It’s not just the time signature that changes, but also how the beat groupings are beamed together:

Note also that, mathematically speaking, the number of quavers (or their equivalents) in each bar of both the strathspey and reel add up to exactly the same amount.  

For our purposes, 4/4 and 2/2 are essentially the same fraction.  But the pulse emphases are different, hence the numerical and notational distinctions.

Remember the partial circle symbol that has since become the ‘C’ that stands for common time?  Well, once upon a time, a piece of music in a diminutum version of 2/2 was marked with a partial circle symbol that had a vertical line dissecting it in half, resulting in cut common time.   Back then, it was called tempus imperfectum minor, Latin for ‘lesser imperfect time’.  Lesser because the beats are subdivided by two, imperfect because each measure involves only two pulses.  And why was two so inferior?  Because two is not three, and three was associated with the Holy Trinity.  (Imagine going through the rest of your life without knowing any of that!)

Has this all been clear as mud from the Bjældskovdal bog?  Excellent.  Stay tuned for more music theory ecstasy in the next article!


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
  26. Theory Top-Up: simple matters
  27. Theory Top-Up: triple time trouble
  28. Theory Top-Up: Common and Cut Time