#1
Despite having made lots of tabs over the years, I'm still very confused about time signatures. I have no problem hearing them and denoting them in a way that is "mathematically" correct and that make sense for me personally, but every now and then I get comments on my tabs disagreeing with my decisions about the denotation. Thought I'd ask if anyone here has a better grasp of this stuff than I do.

Is this a question that has an objectively correct answer, or is it really a subjective matter? And if it is subjective, is there some basic principle behind time signature denotation that will make most people agree with the choices I make?

The biggest example of my confusion would be 4/4 with a "triplet feel". Think "Losfer Words" by Iron Maiden or "Children of the Grave" by Black Sabbath. I would always tab this kind of music in 4/4 with lots of triplets, because it makes sense to me and the notes are easier to read that way. But some commenter on my tab of "Valhalla " by Bathory said that this kind of beat is really 12/8. So that's what I've been doing ever since, but I don't actually know if he is correct.

Another example would be denotation of some more "weird" time signatures. Someone commented on my tab of "Serenity Painted Death " that 15/8 was a weird choice for denotation for the calmer interlude in the middle, but I got no answer when I asked what the person would prefer. I thought it was logical, since the theme sort of "starts again" after 15 eights. What would you have done? Is there a correct time signature for this part? (here is the song , the part starts at about 4:26)

The last thing would be when a song keeps the same basic time signatures, but starts going at half or double pace. I can't think of a really great example right now, but maybe "The Song Remains the Same" when the verse starts and the song seems to go half as fast. I would probably just "ignore" this change and keep the time signature and BPM as they are, but is this the correct way of doing it? Because it "feels" like the BPM should be cut in half.

Sorry for being long winded, but this has been bugging me for quite some time and I'd be really thankful for some of your opinions and knowledge about this.
#2
Quote by BaptizedinFire

Is this a question that has an objectively correct answer, or is it really a subjective matter? And if it is subjective, is there some basic principle behind time signature denotation that will make most people agree with the choices I make?


It's not about something being right or wrong. It's just that if you use the same system everyone else uses, it makes everything hell of a lot easier.

Quote by BaptizedinFire

The biggest example of my confusion would be 4/4 with a "triplet feel". Think "Losfer Words" by Iron Maiden or "Children of the Grave" by Black Sabbath. I would always tab this kind of music in 4/4 with lots of triplets, because it makes sense to me and the notes are easier to read that way. But some commenter on my tab of "Valhalla " by Bathory said that this kind of beat is really 12/8. So that's what I've been doing ever since, but I don't actually know if he is correct.


Triplet feel =/= playing straight triplets. As far as I know, triplet feel is a rhythmic technique used mainly in jazz to evoke a swing feel.

For what it's worth, I think the commenter was full of shit. I didn't listen to the whole song, but every part I did (the intro, first clean part, first heavy part, verse) was in 4/4 imo

Quote by BaptizedinFire
Another example would be denotation of some more "weird" time signatures. Someone commented on my tab of "Serenity Painted Death " that 15/8 was a weird choice for denotation for the calmer interlude in the middle, but I got no answer when I asked what the person would prefer. I thought it was logical, since the theme sort of "starts again" after 15 eights. What would you have done? Is there a correct time signature for this part? (here is the song , the part starts at about 4:26) )


I think you answered your own question in the tab comments. Alternating between 8/8 and 7/8 is also a viable option. I think it's fine in 15/8 though.

Quote by BaptizedinFire

The last thing would be when a song keeps the same basic time signatures, but starts going at half or double pace. I can't think of a really great example right now, but maybe "The Song Remains the Same" when the verse starts and the song seems to go half as fast. I would probably just "ignore" this change and keep the time signature and BPM as they are, but is this the correct way of doing it? Because it "feels" like the BPM should be cut in half.


I think this is situational, but maybe someone has a better answer. In song remains the same, I'd say the tempo goes up, but I'm not really sure about this point myself.
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#3
12/8 or 4/4 with triplets are basically the same thing. I would use 12/8 in slower tempos (where you could actually count in 8th notes) and 4/4 with triplets in faster tempos. That's just what I would do.

About the 15/8 thing... I would actually write that in 15/16 because of the drums. Usually kick and snare are playing quarters. 15/8 is a bit weird because it's almost two whole bars of 4/4 and 4/4 + 7/8 would be a bit more clear way of writing it.

About "Song Remains the Same"... I think the easiest way would be just writing "[half note] = [quarter note]" in the metronome mark. This changes the tempo to half. Then reverse it when you change to the "original tempo" again.
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#4
Thanks to both of you. You seem to pretty much be in agreement with me then, because I always figured the most important thing is that the denotation makes sense and is easy on the brain. I've been insecure about this because some people seem very confident about their preferences and state them as facts.

12/8 or 4/4 with triplets are basically the same thing. I would use 12/8 in slower tempos (where you could actually count in 8th notes) and 4/4 with triplets in faster tempos. That's just what I would do.


Totally agree. 12/8 would be something like "Oh Darling" by the Beatles, and 4/4 with triplets would be "Losfer Words" (or the intro to Serenity Painted Death for that matter, but I made it 12/8 so that I wouldn't get complaints and 3 star ratings). Both because 4/4 with triplets lets you use regular quarter notes as actual quarter notes (in fast 12/8 you have to use punctuated quarter notes to denote what feels like regular quarter notes). And because the BPM gets ridiculously high compared to the song's feeling in fast 12/8.

Although, wikipedia seems to think that Irish jigs are in 12/8. Which I guess is the closest comparison to how metal bands like Maiden typically play.
Last edited by BaptizedinFire at May 25, 2016,
#5
@Bathory song: 4/4 is fine in the intro. By m. 37, though, I'd call it 12/8. 12/8 is a way to write 4/4, but in a way that's friendly for triplets. I'd even call the measures "5/4" and "3/4" a combination of 6/8, then two of 9/8.

Triplet feel is like playing two eighth notes when counting ONE two Three and playing on 1 and 3. See The Beatles' "Revolution" in the verses.

@Opeth song: I hear 14 and then 16, groupings 7+7|7+9 (all 7 groupings are 2+2+3, 9 is 3+3+3)
Which would translate to ...none of the above
I'm paying more attention to the strong counts right now, how the beat divides itself, which is how I usually figure out time signatures.

This would translate to 3 measures of 7/16 and 1 of 9/16.
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#6
Quote by NeoMvsEu

@Opeth song: I hear 14 and then 16, groupings 7+7|7+9 (all 7 groupings are 2+2+3, 9 is 3+3+3)
Which would translate to ...none of the above
I'm paying more attention to the strong counts right now, how the beat divides itself, which is how I usually figure out time signatures.

This would translate to 3 measures of 7/16 and 1 of 9/16.

Yeah, I agree.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
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Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#7
Quote by BaptizedinFire
Totally agree. 12/8 would be something like "Oh Darling" by the Beatles, and 4/4 with triplets would be "Losfer Words" (or the intro to Serenity Painted Death for that matter, but I made it 12/8 so that I wouldn't get complaints and 3 star ratings).
I think the complainers would be right. It's 12/8 because the drum pattern is actually marking enough of the off-beat triplets. It's different from the common bluesy/shuffle "4/4 with triplet feel", where notating it in 12/8 would be unnecessarily fussy (because not enough of the triplet subdivisions are actually marked in the rhythm).

The clearest, most obvious kind of 12/8 is an Afro-Cuban rhythm, such as this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRdlvzIEz-g
or this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twCwj642n0I

There's something of that in the Serenity Painted Death track - enough to make it 12/8, IMO.

There's obviously a spectrum between that and your average slow blues, and it's all about how much those beat divisions are accented. The deciding factor is clarity of notation - what's the quickest way to read it? Which way produces the least superfluous info?
Whole strings of dotted quarter notes are more fiddly than simple quarter notes. At the same time, lots of triplets with brackets and "3" markings is also fussy. In the former case, 4/4 makes sense, with occasional triplet marks where (if) necessary (or just a shuffle feel indicator at the top, the "two 8ths =1/4+1/8 triplet" symbol); in the latter, 12/8, to save too many triplet marks.
Quote by BaptizedinFire

Both because 4/4 with triplets lets you use regular quarter notes as actual quarter notes (in fast 12/8 you have to use punctuated quarter notes to denote what feels like regular quarter notes).
Exactly.
Quote by BaptizedinFire
And because the BPM gets ridiculously high compared to the song's feeling in fast 12/8.
Don't follow there. BPM in 12/8 counts the dotted quarters, so it's still 4 beats in the bar.
Quote by BaptizedinFire

Although, wikipedia seems to think that Irish jigs are in 12/8. Which I guess is the closest comparison to how metal bands like Maiden typically play.

Jigs are typically notated in 6/8 - wiki is wrong there - but deciding between 6/8 and 12/8 in pop/rock is often difficult. Clarity plays its part of course (6/8 can be easier to follow the rhythms because the bars are shorter), but also harmonic rhythm, the rate of chord change. (Or some other rhythmic repetition.)
Eg, the Animals House of the Rising Sun, Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, Moody Blues Nights in White Satin - all 6/8, because the chords change every 2 beats. But REM's Everybody Hurts - 12/8, because the chords change mostly) every 4 beats.
All are debatable, however (IMO).
#8
Just go with what seems right to you - I can't imagine why anyone would care if they're reading tab - it's not like anyone on the planet is sight-reading these tabs.
#9
@Bathory song: 4/4 is fine in the intro. By m. 37, though, I'd call it 12/8. 12/8 is a way to write 4/4, but in a way that's friendly for triplets. I'd even call the measures "5/4" and "3/4" a combination of 6/8, then two of 9/8.

Triplet feel is like playing two eighth notes when counting ONE two Three and playing on 1 and 3. See The Beatles' "Revolution" in the verses.

@Opeth song: I hear 14 and then 16, groupings 7+7|7+9 (all 7 groupings are 2+2+3, 9 is 3+3+3)
Which would translate to ...none of the above
I'm paying more attention to the strong counts right now, how the beat divides itself, which is how I usually figure out time signatures.

This would translate to 3 measures of 7/16 and 1 of 9/16.


Thanks a ton, Neo. Very thorough analysis. I'm going to change both tabs when I get the time and credit you in the score information. The 5/4 and 3/4 sounds much better as you said it. And about the Opeth song, that's how I count it in my head, just thought it would look too weird... but I think it's gonna be an improvement. Now that we're at it, how would you denote the little acoustic bit before the interlude? I made it 14/8, but if I tried to apply your principle, would I end up with 12/16 followed by 4/4? (3+3+3+2+1 for the 12 grouping)

Quote by jongtr
There's obviously a spectrum between that and your average slow blues, and it's all about how much those beat divisions are accented. The deciding factor is clarity of notation - what's the quickest way to read it? Which way produces the least superfluous info?
Whole strings of dotted quarter notes are more fiddly than simple quarter notes. At the same time, lots of triplets with brackets and "3" markings is also fussy. In the former case, 4/4 makes sense, with occasional triplet marks where (if) necessary (or just a shuffle feel indicator at the top, the "two 8ths =1/4+1/8 triplet" symbol); in the latter, 12/8, to save too many triplet marks.
Exactly.


Thank you. I don't really agree, for me it seems very natural and not fussy to use triplets between regular quarter notes, especially the faster the tempo gets. But I guess most people disagree with me and prefer 12/8 in most circumstances.

Don't follow there. BPM in 12/8 counts the dotted quarters, so it's still 4 beats in the bar.


Alright. In my GP5, it seems like it's counting regular quarters, so I have to adapt the tempo to 6 beats per bar which means I have to make it 1.5 times faster than if GP5 counted 12/8 in dotted quarters. In Serenity for example, I had to set the tempo to 198 in the intro, even though there are only 132 beats per minute. Is there some setting in the program to fix this?

Jigs are typically notated in 6/8 - wiki is wrong there - but deciding between 6/8 and 12/8 in pop/rock is often difficult. Clarity plays its part of course (6/8 can be easier to follow the rhythms because the bars are shorter), but also harmonic rhythm, the rate of chord change. (Or some other rhythmic repetition.)
Eg, the Animals House of the Rising Sun, Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, Moody Blues Nights in White Satin - all 6/8, because the chords change every 2 beats. But REM's Everybody Hurts - 12/8, because the chords change mostly) every 4 beats.
All are debatable, however (IMO).


Okay, thanks. You've given me something to think about. Sometimes I take the amount of measures into account when choosing denotation, since you can cut the amount of measures in half by writing a jig in 12/8 instead of 6/8 for example. But I would much rather do what can be considered generally accepted among knowledgeable musicians.
#10
Quote by reverb66
Just go with what seems right to you - I can't imagine why anyone would care if they're reading tab - it's not like anyone on the planet is sight-reading these tabs.


Actually, I have used Guitar Pro on occasion to make stuff for musicians to sight read. I'm just curious if there is some standard way to think about denotations, because there are clearly ways to denote time signatures that are mathematically correct yet seem totally improper for the song.
#11
Quote by BaptizedinFire at #33984446
Thanks a ton, Neo. Very thorough analysis. I'm going to change both tabs when I get the time and credit you in the score information. The 5/4 and 3/4 sounds much better as you said it. And about the Opeth song, that's how I count it in my head, just thought it would look too weird... but I think it's gonna be an improvement. Now that we're at it, how would you denote the little acoustic bit before the interlude? I made it 14/8, but if I tried to apply your principle, would I end up with 12/16 followed by 4/4? (3+3+3+2+1 for the 12 grouping)

Np! Yeah, 12/16 then 4/4, although I hear 3+3+3+3 over the 12/16 instead of the 2+1 subdivision.

Quote by BaptizedinFire at #33984455
Actually, I have used Guitar Pro on occasion to make stuff for musicians to sight read. I'm just curious if there is some standard way to think about denotations, because there are clearly ways to denote time signatures that are mathematically correct yet seem totally improper for the song.

Speaking of completely weird ways to notate rhythm:


https://youtu.be/WNCqbN6nkfY

Sheet music here in 6/8.
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#13
Quote by BaptizedinFire

Thank you. I don't really agree, for me it seems very natural and not fussy to use triplets between regular quarter notes, especially the faster the tempo gets. But I guess most people disagree with me and prefer 12/8 in most circumstances.
Yes, but properly notated, the triplets need that figure "3" over (or under), and sometimes a bracket. That's extra stuff, especially if the triplet feel is strongly marked (lots of beat subdivisions).

There's definitely a grey area, though, between a swing 4 (or shuffle 4) and a firm 12/8, where the choice is personal. I certainly don't prefer 12/8 "in most circumstances" - only where I think it comes out simpler on the notation than 4/4.
Quote by BaptizedinFire

Alright. In my GP5, it seems like it's counting regular quarters, so I have to adapt the tempo to 6 beats per bar which means I have to make it 1.5 times faster than if GP5 counted 12/8 in dotted quarters. In Serenity for example, I had to set the tempo to 198 in the intro, even though there are only 132 beats per minute. Is there some setting in the program to fix this?
Sorry I don't use GP, but I'd have thought there should be. Any serious software ought to be able to mark tempos in compound time. 6/8 and 12/8 aren't exactly rare.
Quote by BaptizedinFire

Okay, thanks. You've given me something to think about. Sometimes I take the amount of measures into account when choosing denotation, since you can cut the amount of measures in half by writing a jig in 12/8 instead of 6/8 for example. But I would much rather do what can be considered generally accepted among knowledgeable musicians.
I don't think I've ever seen a jig written in 12/8 - 6/8 is definitely the convention. (You also get "slip jigs" which are written in 9/8, three triplet beats.)

In general, cutting the number of measures (12/8 instead of 6/8) does save barlines, but can make the music harder to read - to see where notes fall relative to the beat, especially if there's lots of rests. Which doesn't, of course, mean 6/8 is always better (unless it's a jig)!
Last edited by jongtr at May 26, 2016,
#14
There is an objective answer to this question however, Rock styles typically go against the grain on these matters so experience and intuition play as much of a part in deciphering time signature as objective reasoning.

First, the facts:

1. Time signatures (or meters) are set to establish 2 things: beats per measure and background units (which is implied by choosing which note gets the beat).
2. Background units are the largest equal division of the beat.
3. Simple meters (2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, etc) have a background unit of an 8th note that divides the beat evenly in half.
4. Compound meters (3/8, 6/6, 9/8, 12/8, etc) have a background unit of an 8th note that divides the beat evenly in thirds. They often feel like their Simple counterparts with triplet polyrhythms. However if everyone in the band is playing triplets, then it's much simpler to transcribe the passage as 12/8, than it is 4/4 with triplets. The actual beat is felt in 4/4, but because the system doesn't have a "3-beat" note value (we "dot" an even beat to make it 3, such as a dotted half-note), the 8 is indicated as the beat.
5. Every meter should have an emphasis on the downbeat of each measure. This is often overlooked in Rock as an actual rule because typical arranging practice for the genre usually has everyone play on the first beat of the measure, creating a natural accent.

Tips:
1. Time signatures provide context for the principle elements of a song--rhythm, harmony, and melody--by organizing the accents in each measure. It's not just the number of beats. In 4/4, the downbeat has the strongest accent, the 3rd beat has the next strongest accent, followed by 3 and 4, and finally the offbeats (or background units) have the weakest accents. It's similar for compound meters. Rock and related styles throw a little bit of a wrench in to that by placing snare hits on 2 and 4, but the rest of the guideline generally holds true.

2. A general theoretical guide is to have the chords change every measure. Obviously, there is plenty of music across genres that change this. But it's a good place to start when transcribing. This can also change within a song, say from the verse to the chorus. The verse may have 1 chord per measure and the chorus may have 2 chords per measure to add energy and excitement.

3. Again, generally speaking, the melody will fit into an even number of measures. The thing to check for is where accented syllables align with accented beats.

With all of that in mind, music is a language of comparisons and context. When trying to decide between two possible time signatures (6/8 and 12/8 for example), counting the beats isn't enough. How many beats between chord changes? How does that affect the feel of a downbeat? (Usually, a change in chords will feel like the beginning of a new measure, but not always). Typically, how many beats are the melodic phrases? How does that measurement compare to the chord changes and the underlying rhythmic pattern?

There's definitely a lot to it but keep this in mind and use your best judgement and you'll probably come up with very justifiable answers. Remind me to tell you why the time signature for the verse riff to Metallica's "Master of Puppets" as been mistranscribed for years.

Good luck!
#15
Quote by koshaughnesssy
Remind me to tell you why the time signature for the verse riff to Metallica's "Master of Puppets" as been mistranscribed for years.
Consider yourself reminded!
#16
Quote by koshaughnesssy

1. Time signatures (or meters) are set to establish 2 things: beats per measure and background units (which is implied by choosing which note gets the beat).
2. Background units are the largest equal division of the beat.
OK.


3. Simple meters (2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, etc) have a background unit of an 8th note that divides the beat evenly in half.
Okay, the denominator is 4. Quarter note gets the beat. Eighth note divides the beat in half.

4. Compound meters (3/8, 6/6,
No, 3/8 is simple. 6/6 is not a common meter at all. What is a sixth note?

9/8, 12/8, etc) have a background unit of an 8th note that divides the beat evenly in thirds.
Hm? Eighth notes are the division. 9/8 is 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a, so you feel dotted quarters but count every eighth.

They often feel like their Simple counterparts with triplet polyrhythms. However if everyone in the band is playing triplets, then it's much simpler to transcribe the passage as 12/8, than it is 4/4 with triplets. The actual beat is felt in 4/4, but because the system doesn't have a "3-beat" note value (we "dot" an even beat to make it 3, such as a dotted half-note), the 8 is indicated as the beat.
Generally agreed.

5. Every meter should have an emphasis on the downbeat of each measure. This is often overlooked in Rock as an actual rule because typical arranging practice for the genre usually has everyone play on the first beat of the measure, creating a natural accent.
I'd like to see you tell that to everyone who's ever used syncopation.


1. Time signatures provide context for the principle elements of a song--rhythm, harmony, and melody--by organizing the accents in each measure. It's not just the number of beats. In 4/4, the downbeat has the strongest accent, the 3rd beat has the next strongest accent, followed by 2 and 4, and finally the offbeats (or background units) have the weakest accents. It's similar for compound meters. Rock and related styles throw a little bit of a wrench in to that by placing snare hits on 2 and 4, but the rest of the guideline generally holds true.
FTFY.

There's definitely a lot to it but keep this in mind and use your best judgement and you'll probably come up with very justifiable answers. Remind me to tell you why the time signature for the verse riff to Metallica's "Master of Puppets" as been mistranscribed for years.
and remind me to tell you that a little bit of humility can go a long way
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#17
THere's no such thing as "4/4 with triplet feel". It's either 4/4 or 12/8.

If you'd consistently count it as "1 and 2 and...", it's 4/4.

If you'd count "1 and ah 2 and ah...", it's 12/8.

Duple meter is anything with beats divided in two, and triple meter is anything with beats divided in three. If a song uses both, just use your judgment to decide which meter more defines the song overall.