Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Odd Time Signatures: The Truth


A few weeks ago on Facebook I made some ignorant statements about time signatures. I had just started writing an electronic song in 9/4. I was just getting going when an old idea came back to me: 2/4 is fundamentally the same as 2/2 or 4/4. Likewise 6/8 is 3/4 with different lipstick.

I was wrong. Let me get that fact out of the way. How I got to be so wrong and how I came back to my senses is interesting. It reveals a lot about how I think about music and I think it should inform the way others think about music notation.

My conclusion was that I wasn't accomplishing anything by writing in 9/4 that I couldn't in 3/4, 6/8, 12/8 or 6/4. My thinking was that any numerator that can be evenly divided represents a meaningless multiple of it's lowest factor. According to this logic all time signatures with numerators (representing the number of beats to a measure) that are multiples of 3 are fundamentally in 3/X. If we take the quarter note as being the normative value in the denominator we can say that all of these time signatures are 3/4 notated differently.


You can trace this thinking back to what was probably the only day I paid attention in 6th grade math. Time signatures look like fractions so the idea of simplifying or reducing them is almost instinctual...if you are me. And why not? 6/8 can easily be reduced to 3/4. For the music to sound the same the only other thing that would need to be changed is the tempo. Eight 1/8 beats at 120 bpm lasts exactly the same amount of time as four 1/4 beats at 60 bpm.

The same logic applies to the difference between 9/4 and 3/4, with one additional layer of complexity. Not only would the tempo need to change but so would the way the notes were written on the page. Nine 1/4 notes would need to become three sets of triplets to fit into a 3/4 measure and the tempo reduced by two thirds.

In this way it is technically possible that once piece of music can be correctly notated in two different time signatures yet render the same sounds when either is performed. My mistake was in misunderstanding what this technical possibility means.

In the stupid conversation I started about this on Facebook a friend, quite correctly, pointed out that different time signatures FEEL different. She said feel is as important as any technical differences between them.


Being full of myself and perhaps not quite as smart as I like to think I argued. I said "to really get away from 3/4 and 4/4 you have to write in a time signature with a prime number of beats greater than four." I have written in 5/4 and 7/4 in the past. Maybe I was trying to pat myself on the back for being so clever as to do that.

What actually made the lightbulb come on was when I went back to my 9/4 piece. I tweaked. I arranged. I played with delays and gates.

Then I listened. WTF! It sounds really different. Those great, long measures changed the way I did things.

Beats and measures are not just placeholders. They are arbitrary. They are artificial. They do not have an entirely fixed meaning and sometimes they can be substituted for one another, but that isn't all they are.

We use beats and measures to organize our thoughts. Just as playing a guitar is different from playing a lute writing in two different time signatures will be different. Rather than a different collection of frets and strings organizing the location of your fingers a different way of counting time organizes the placement of your notes, thus changing how you think about those notes.

The fact that some rather forced process of munging note values and tempos could result in the same music notated in two different key signatures does not change this. I stand corrected.

2 comments:

Habladora said...

I really enjoyed this post... and perhaps I even learned something - well, just enough to start a "what do you think?" conversation with some of my musician friends...

DJ Dual Core said...

I'm glad you liked it. If you get any interesting responses from your musician friends please share!