Why Do My Scales Sound Boring. Part 2: Time Signatures

author: chris flatley date: 12/20/2010 category: for beginners
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This lesson really needs a video demonstration, but as the camera hates me, I'm going to try my best to describe it using text. I'd appreciate being told whether or not I succeeded. If it isn't clear, please ask questions. Part 1 of Why Do My Scales Sound Boring was about turning the guitar into a percussive instrument, and keeping ourselves amused with grooves alone. Using different time signatures can be very helpful. I'm going to try to explain how they work in terms of practicality. That is to say, how they affect the feel and flow of the music. So what does the time signature do to the music? What effect does it have on the feel and flow? In order to appreciate its effect, we first need to understand the two other elements that deal with time. These are tempo and note value. By knowing the tempo, which is stated at the beginning of a piece of music, we can determine for how long each type of note is to be held. If for example the tempo shows a quarter note = 60, then we know that quarter notes are held for roughly 1 second, straight eighth notes for half a second, triplet eighth notes for a third of a second, sixteenth notes for a quarter of a second, and so on. We do this instinctively by dividing up the beats evenly. Now that we know how long to hold each note, how does the time signature affect things? Other than telling us how many of each type of note fits into each bar, what does it actually do in practical terms? To answer this question I'm going to use a very unimaginative piece of music, and an analogous train wheel. And so you're going to have to do a bit of visualisation. Fingers crossed, here goes The tempo for this piece of music is eighth notes =200. The piece of music is a C major scale played through two octaves up and down with all notes played as eighth notes. Do not use a metronome for this exercise. The tempo isn't important. What is important, is that we're going to be playing exactly the same notes in exactly the same order at exactly the same tempo. The only thing we're going to change is the time signature. This is going to allow us to really appreciate what it does to the feel of the music. I'm going to ask you to do two things. The first is to play the piece, and the second is to imagine the wheels on one of those old steam trains. You know the type I mean? They have a horizontal bar that is pushed up and down by a steam driven piston. But the fact that its attached to the outer edge of a wheel means it can't go straight up and down. The wheel causes it to go left and right as well as up and down in just the right proportions to make a circle. Hope you're following this. Your forearm, from the elbow to your picking hand, is that horizontal bar. Your picking hand is the bit that is attached to the edge of the wheel. If you imagine you're using your picking hand to draw a circle around either your pickups or the sound hole of an acoustic, then your forearm should behave just like the horizontal bar on the wheel of the train. It's driving the wheel of the train in a forward motion. Despite the fact that we're constantly playing eighth notes at 200 bpm, Changing the time signature will change the speed of the train. Time signatures such as 5/8 and 7/8 will even cause the train to speed up and slow down during every bar. The first time signature is good old 4/4:
|1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - |1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - |1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - |1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - |
 >   >   >   >    >   >   >   >    >   >   >   >    >   >   >   >  
You can see from the accent marks (>) that all the weighted notes are on the beat. These should be played with down strokes. The off beats (-) should be played with up strokes. All pretty straight forward, but what does this do to the wheel of our train? Thee answer is, not much. If we make a circle (as described above) with our picking hand, the lowest point of the circle should coincide with the weightiest beats (>). The off beats (-) should coincide with the highest point of the circle. This means that in 4/4 we make a full circle for EVERY two eighth notes, and the train moves at a smooth and constant speed. Now let's contrast that with 7/8. Note there are several ways to play a bar of 7/8. I've chosen what I believe is the easiest.
|1 - 2 - 3 - - |1 - 2 - 3 - - |1 - 2 - 3 - - |1 - 2 - 3 - - |1
 >   >   >      >   >   >      >   >   >      >   >   >      >
Remember that the eighth notes are still being played at exactly the same rate, and we're playing all the same notes. However it now has a very different feel because of the uneven distribution of weighted notes. Notice that there is one off beat between the 1 and the 2, and the 2 and the 3, but there are two off beats between the 3 and the 1 of the next bar. What does this do to the speed of the train? Something pretty interesting. If the picking hand is at the lowest point of the circle for the weighted beats, then you can see that it does a full circle for 1 - (two eighths), a full circle for 2 - (two eighths), and a full circle for 3 - - (three eighths). In other words, for 3 - - ,the off beats can't both be at the top of the circle, they're at 10 and 2 o'clock. This means that the last of the three circles takes a little longer, and so the train slows a little for that section of the bar. It's this that gives time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/8 their out-of-step feel. 7/8 feels like: skip skip step, skip skip step etc. But as mentioned above, it can be played: step skip skip, or skip step skip. The step' being the bit with three eighths that takes a little longer. Something else worth mentioning is the pick pattern (down up) for 7/8. If there has to be a down stroke on every weighted note this means that for the example above (skip skip step), the pick pattern must be:
|1 - 2 - 3 - - |1 - 2 - 3 - - |1 - 2 - 3 - - |1 - 2 - 3 - - |1
 d u d u d u d  d u d u d u d  d u d u d u d  d u d u d u d  d
So you can see there are two downs in a row, which end and begin the next bar. This double downing' is a very useful skill to develop when dealing with time signatures such as 3/8, 5/8, 6/8, 7/8 etc. Now let's compare 6/8 and 3/4. The interesting thing here is that the fact that we're playing everything using just eighth notes, means that played using all eighth notes, contains exactly the same number as 6/8. The fact that we're playing six eighth notes per bar at exactly the same tempo for both time signatures, really helps to emphasise what a time signature does to the feel (the train).
 1 - 2 - 3 - |1 - 2 - 3 - |1 - 2 - 3 - |1 - 2 - 3 - |1 - 2 - 3 - |
 >   >   >    >   >   >    >   >   >    >   >   >    >   >   >
Despite the fact that 3/4 has an odd number on top, the train is still going to move along in an even way because each full circle contains two eighths with the weighted notes at the bottom (6 o'clock) and the off beats at the top (12 oclock).
 1 - - 2 - - |1 - - 2 - - |1 - - 2 - - |1 - - 2 - - |1 - - 2 - - |
 >     >      >     >      >     >      >     >      >     >     
In 3/4, the circle contained two eighths (one at the bottom and one at the top), 6/8 has three eighths per circle with the weight at the bottom, and the off beats at 10 and 2. This means that in 6/8 each circle takes longer, and so even though the eighth notes have the same rapidity for both time signatures, 6/8 will have a slower feel because the train is moving slower. Okay, let's talk about 9/8. And let's talk about how, in its most common form, it is very different from signatures such as 5/8 and 7/8. All three have 8 on the bottom and an odd number on the top, so why does 9/8 differ from the other two?
 1 - - 2 - - 3 - - |1 - - 2 - - 3 - - |1 - - 2 - - 3 - - |1 -  
 >     >     >      >     >     >      >     >     >      >
In 7/8 we saw that the bar broke down into three circles. The first two contained two eighths, and the third contained three. This gave it a skip skip step feel. 9/8 however is made up of all steps'. The result is that 9/8 has an even feel. The train moves at a constant speed because each circle has the same duration. Unlike 5 and 7, 9 isn't a prime number. This means 9 can be divided into three equal parts. Time signatures that are based on eighth notes, group the eighths into clusters. The weight is never placed on all the eighth notes, just the opening note of the cluster. Because 5 and 7 are prime numbers, they can't be divided equally, and so the groups of eighth notes will be unequal. This is why mathematicians love primes and musicians love prime times, because we're weirdoes who are out-of-step.
1 - 2 - - |1 - 2 - - | etc
>   >       >  >
1 - - 2 - |1 - - 2 - | etc  
>     >    >     >
5/8 either has a skip step feel or a step skip feel. The train goes quick slow quick slow or slow quick slow quick. And that's pretty much it for my article on time signatures. But what about 5/4, 6/4, 7/4 etc. Just glue 3/4 and 2/4 together, or 4/4 and 2/4, or 4/4 and 3/4 etc. Is that wrong? Because that's what I do! Here's a question for the musos out there. While pondering time signatures, I came up with a question that I couldn't answer. Can you? In spite of the fact that music such as Latin, Reggae, Ska etc deliberately place emphasis on the off beat - sometimes emphasising the off beats either side of the 1, and leaving a silence where the 1 is, we still can find the beat, and we still can find the 1. This is true even when we join the music halfway through. And the 1 always has the greatest weight - even when its silent. Why?
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