Time Signatures

author: UG Team date: 07/31/2003 category: guitar techniques

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Firstly, this lesson is not for beginners. If enough people request it, I'll post a lesson covering the basic aspects of what a time signature is. But for now, I'll be concentrating on some of the more complex time signatures. Most of the music heard in most genres of Western music relys on symmetrical time. This means that the number of pulses in the bar is divisible by two, I. e., there is a defined "center" of the bar; with an equal number of beats either side of this "center". Symmetrical time signatures include 4/4, 6/8, 12/8, etc. Asymmetrical time signatures, as you may have guessed, are such that the number of pulses in the bar is NOT divisible by two, and when heard by Western ears, often sound like the "center" is "shifting" with each bar. Examples of asymmetrical time include 5/4, 7/8, 15/16, etc. Example 1 is a riff in 7/8 from the E minor pentatonic scale. Be careful to observe the accent marks, but play the notes such that they are rhythmically even. They're all eighth notes.
7/8 100 bpm
> > > >
Lets try another. This one's in 5/4, but not all the notes are even. Some are quarter notes and some are eighth notes (you can tell from the grouping). It's in E phrygian dominant
5/4 125 bpm
> > > >
Got the hang of it? Ok, now I'll introduce additive rhythms. These are rhythms that use two alternating time signatures. For example, a riff may be two bars long and contain one bar in 7/8 time and another bar in 5/8 time. For convenience, this is often referred to as (7+5)/8 although this is not considered correct musical grammar. Whenever additive time is used in a book, it will usually change time signature each bar rather than use the shorthand I described. This next riff is in A whole tone and is in (7+5)/8 time. For simplicity, all notes are eighth notes, but watch the accents.
7/8 5/8 repeat once
> > > >
Ok, that's about it for this lesson. But I'll leave you with something insanely difficult. It's two bars of 5/7 (yes, that's possible, very uncommon but possible). To get you started, here's one bar of 5 seventh-notes played on the low open E. This time, four spaces between notes is a quarter note.
{ 7 }


5/7 { 3 } { 5 }
{ 7 } { 7}
N. B. The last note is supposed to be spaced as per a quarter note, I didn't want to start a new line for the sake of two spaces. The second group of 7 is incomplete, though it would normally continue. It is possible to group notes accross bar lines in this fashion, though it's very uncommon. Next lesson is on polyrhythms, get ready!
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