Piano Time signatures

All rhythms aren't created equal. Different music styles require different music beats, known as time signatures.

Time signatures are the two numbers at the beginning of a piece of music that indicate the rhythmic form the piece is to take. Each time signature gives a different 'feel' and so they are used for different purposes.

Below is a list of some different time signatures along with a description of how and when they are most commonly used:

2/2 – Can also be notated as

(known as alla breve), standing for ‘cut time’, meaning it is half of 4/4. 2/2 is used for marches, fast orchestral pieces, and sometimes in musical theatre.

2/4 – This is often used in marches - (think: left right/ left right!)

3/4 – Gives a dance-like sound and is most famously used in waltzes (e.g. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss). If you think ‘Waltz’ timing every time you play a piece in 3/4, then you should find it really easy to remember how this rhythm sounds. Also used for minuets, scherzi, and country and western ballads

4/4 – The most common time signature. 4/4 can also be notated as a C – standing for ‘common time’. 4/4 is the used for most rock and pop songs and frequently appears in all other styles of music as well.

- The time signatures below all have a ‘bouncy’ feel to them. They are examples of compound time (more complicated time signatures in which the top number is always a multiple of 3).

6/8 – Used for fast jigs and fast waltzes and marches. 6/8 means six eighth notes (semiquavers) to every bar, with the eighth note getting the beat. 6/8 is also known as ‘triplet time’. That means that the eighth notes are in groups of three, so instead of counting 123456, you can count 1 2/ 1 2/ 1 2. This is entirely different from 4/4 time where you count 1 2 3 4 in each measure. In 6/8 you count two, three beat patterns in each measure.

I tend to swap between counting 123 456 and 1 2 for 6/8 timing. For fast pieces it can become almost impossible to count up to six, and 1 2 is a lot easier!

For an interesting example of 6/8 timing alternating with 3/4 timing, listen to ‘ America’ from Leonard Bernstein’s famous musical West Side Story. Here the rhythm goes:

123 456/ 123/ 123 456/ 123.

9/8 – This is counted in three groups of three, or three groups of two. E.g. 123 123 123/ 123 123 123, or, 12 12 12/ 12 12 12. 9/8 occurs very rarely in music.

12/8 – Used for blues and doo-wop. 12/8 occurs infrequently in music and we will not be using it in any of these lessons. Suffice it to say that 12/8 means 12 quarter notes to each bar.

The first piece in the lesson today is in 4/4, the most common time signature of all. The piece is in rock ’n’ roll style, with a distinctive ‘walking bass’. A walking bass is a bass line that moves by steps (semitones or tones), played on the bass or piano, with each note the same length (e.g. all crotchets) to give a steady walking rhythm.

Listen to the audio first and notice the ‘swing’ rhythm. A swing rhythm gives a jaunty, swaying feel to music and is very popular in jazz and some pop music. Have a listen to Big Band hits of the 1930s and 1940s to get the feel. Songs such as In The Mood, Sing Sing Sing, Begin the Beguine, and Satin Doll are all classic swing examples.

At the top of the piece you will notice a tempo direction, represented by a crotchet beat followed by an equals sign and a value. This is the number of beats per minute. 130 beats per minute is quite a fast speed (you can hear how fast on the audio) as it means playing just over 2 beats per second. If you have a metronome you can just set it to 130 and play the piece in time.

Take note of the accidental E flat and the occasional thirds in the right hand.

Now, for a bit of a variation, here is a march to play in 2/4. The left hand keeps a steady marching beat – left right left right! - while the right hand plays the melody. The key signature for this piece is B flat. In this key, the flats are played for B and E.

Before you play, have a look at the B flat major scale below:

Glossary of Terms

Alla breve: Indicating 2/2 time or "cut time".

Blues: A vocal and instrumental musical form which evolved from African American spirituals, work songs, shouts and chants and has its earliest stylistic roots in West Africa. Blues has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music, finding expression in ragtime, jazz, big bands, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and country music, as well as conventional pop songs and even modern classical music.

Doo-wop: A genre (usually a cappella) of Black vocal-harmony music of the 1950s that evolved in New York City from gospel singing. Doo-wop is characterized by close four-part harmonies, while the name is derived from some of the nonsense syllables sung by the backup.

Jig: A folk dance and accompanying dance tune type, popular in Ireland and Scotland. It is transcribed in a time which is a multiple of three, 12/8 time for a 'single jig' or 'slide', 6/8 time for a 'double jig', and 9/8 time for a 'slip jig'.

March: Instrumental music with a repeated and regular rhythm that could accompany a marching group.

Minuet: An elegant ballroom dance common in the 18th century, characterized by small, dainty steps danced in leisurely, triple meter.

Sherzo: A sprightly, humorous instrumental musical composition or movement commonly in quick triple time

Time Signature: A symbol usually consisting or two numbers, one above the other, used to indicate the meter. The top number refers to the number of beats (or subdivided beats in compound meters) per measure, and the bottom number refers to which note value gets the beat (or subdivided beat in compound meters).