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The time signature (also known as "
signature") is a notational device used in
notation to specify how many
and which note value (
and so on) constitutes one beat.
Most time signatures comprise two numbers, one above the other. (When
writing about time signatures, time signatures are generally written
with the top number separated from the bottom by a slash (in the manner
The example here, for example, can be written 3/4.)
In a musical score, the time signature appears at the beginning of
the piece, immediately following the
signature (or immediately following the
clef if there is
no key signature). A mid-score time signature indicates a change of
Time signatures can be "simple" or "compound". In simple time
signatures, the upper number indicates how many
are in a
and the lower number indicates the length of that beat. The most common
simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4.
Compound time signatures are distinguished by a top number which is 6
or above and a multiple of three (most commonly 6, 9, or 12). Unlike
simple time signatures, the upper lower and lower numbers in compound
time signatures do not represent the number of beats per measure and the
duration of the beat. To determine the number of beats per measure for a
compound time signature, divide the upper number by three. For example,
in 6/8, there are 2 beats per measure (because 6 divided by 3 equals 2).
The duration of the beat (or the "beat unit") in compound time is three
times the duration represented by the lower number. For example, in 6/8,
the beat unit is a dotted quarter-note (because three times the value of
an eighth-note is a dotted quarter-note).
In compound time, the beat unit is always a dotted value. In simple
time, the beat unit is always an undotted value.
For all meters, the first beat (the "downbeat") is stressed; in time
signatures with four groups in the bar (such as 4/4 and 12/8), the third
beat is also stressed, though to a lesser degree. This gives a regular
pattern of stressed and unstressed beats.
To indicate more complex patterns of stresses, such as
rhythms, more complex time signatures can be used. For example, the
which can be written 3+2+3/8, means that the first of a
group of three quavers (
is to be stressed, then the first of a group of two, then first of a
group of three again. The stress pattern is usually counted as one-two-three-one-two-one-two-three,
italics indicating stresses. This kind of time signature is common in
folk and non-Western types of music. In classical music,
Olivier Messiaen are composers to use such time signatures.
In some cases, the letter C (common time) is used in place of the 4/4
time signature. A similar C with a vertical line through it can be used
in place of 2/2, indicating alla breve (cut time) for a fast
Pieces with two beats to the bar, such as 2/4 or 6/8, are said to be
in duple meter. Similarly, music with three beats to the bar
(such as 3/2 or 9/8) is in triple meter. Music with four beats
to the bar is in quadruple meter, five beats is quintuple
meter and seven is septuple meter. These names can be combined
with the simple and compound terms, so that 3/4 time
can be described as simple triple, 6/8 as compound duple
and so on.
There is a sense in which all simple triple time signatures,
be they 3/8, 3/4, 3/2 or anything else, and all compound duple times,
such as 6/8, 6/16 and so on, are equivalent - a piece in 3/4 can be
easily rewritten in 3/8 simply by halving the length of the notes.
Sometimes, the choice of bass note is simply down to tradition: the
minuet A minuet sometimes spelt menuet
is a dance for two persons, usually in 3/4 time. The word was adapted,
under the influence of the Italian minuetto from the French minuet
meaning small, pretty, delicate, a diminutive of menu from the Latin
minutus menuetto, for example, is generally written in 3/4, and
though examples in 3/8 do exist, a minuet in 3/2 would be highly
unconventional. At other times, the choice of bottom note can give
subtle hints as to the character of the music: for example, time
signatures with a longer bass-note (such as 3/2) can be used for pieces
in a quick tempo to convey a sense of the time flying by.
Similarly, a piece in 2/4 can often sound like it is in 4/4 (or vice
versa) and a piece in 3/4 can sound like it is in 6/8 or 12/8 time,
particularly if the former is played quickly or the latter slowly.
modern Western Music20th century
classical music was extremely diverse, ranging from the late Romantic
style of Sergei Rachmaninoff to the complete serialism of Pierre Boulez,
and from the simple triadic harmonies of minimalist composers such as
Philip Glass to the musique c, in styles such as
serialismSerialism is a rigorous
system of composing music in which various elements of the piece are
ordered according to a pre-determined ordered set or sets, and
variations on them. The elements thus controlled may be the pitch of the
notes, their length, their and
minimalism. Minimalism describes
movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and
music, where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features.
In other fields of art, it has been used to describe the plays of Samuel
Beckett, the fill, the time signature is often avoided entirely
signature is also frequently omitted). An underlying time signature
or key may be present, but it may be too notationally complex or too
redundant to indicate. In the music of many cultures, time is maintained
drumFor other kinds of drums, see
drum (disambiguation). A drum is a musical percussion instrument,
consisting of a membrane which is usually stretched taut over a
cylindrical tube that is open at the other end. The membrane is struck,
either with the hand or or other
percussion instrument. Examples of this can be found in Indian
classical music (see
music, both of which often rely on
tradition to pass down popular songs (although both utilize an
idiosyncratic rhythmic notation).
Standard time signatures in
4/4 or C -- common time; very common in classical music; the
norm in rock, jazz, country, and bluegrass
2/2 or ˘ -- cut time, used for
4/2 -- alla breve
2/4 -- used for
3/4 -- used for
and country & western ballads. Some rare examples of 3/4 in rock
songs are "Manic Depression" by
Hendrix, the middle section of the instrumental "Orion" by
and the first section of "In that quiet earth" by
the instrumental "Hell's Kitchen" by
Theater, and Part VII, "The Crimson Sunset", of the epic
Change of Seasons by the same band. (The sudden time change from
12/8 to 3/4 creates an eerie sensation of "time running out".)
6/8 -- used for fast
9/8 -- indicates "compound triple time"
12/8 -- common in
Some unusual time signatures in Western music are:
Other unusual meters exist.
is well known for his employment of unusual time signatures (see above);
consistently explored this area also.
progressive metal, and
often employ unusual time signatures. The group
have made extensive use of unusual time signatures, as have
and Nick Didkovsky 's Doctor Nerve . In electronic music,
Snares uses 7/4 and 5/4 almost exclusively. Many songs in
Brecht's plays feature no time signature at all; each measure
contains a different number of beats.
Bacharach's rhythmically exciting song ""Promises, Promises""
likewise features a constantly changing meter.
Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is famous for its "savage"
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