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

author: chris flatley date: 12/20/2010 category: the basics

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4/4
|----------------|--------5-7-8-7-|5---------------|----------------|
|----------------|--5-6-8---------|--8-6-5---------|----------------|
|----------2-4-5-|7---------------|--------7-5-4-2-|----------------|
|----2-3-5-------|----------------|----------------|5-3-2-----------|
|3-5-------------|----------------|----------------|------5-3-------|
|----------------|----------------|----------------|----------------|
|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.
7/8
|--------------|----------5-7-|8-7-5---------|--------------|--
|--------------|----5-6-8-----|------8-6-5---|--------------|--
|----------2-4-|5-7-----------|------------7-|5-4-2---------|--
|----2-3-5-----|--------------|--------------|------5-3-2---|--
|3-5-----------|--------------|--------------|------------5-|3-
|--------------|--------------|--------------|--------------|--
|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).
3/4
|------------|------------|5-7-8-7-5---|------------|------------|
|------------|------5-6-8-|----------8-|6-5---------|------------|
|----------2-|4-5-7-------|------------|----7-5-4-2-|------------|
|----2-3-5---|------------|------------|------------|5-3-2-------|
|3-5---------|------------|------------|------------|------5-3---|
|------------|------------|------------|------------|------------|
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).
6/8
|------------|------------|5-7-8-7-5---|------------|------------|
|------------|------5-6-8-|----------8-|6-5---------|------------|
|----------2-|4-5-7-------|------------|----7-5-4-2-|------------|
|----2-3-5---|------------|------------|------------|5-3-2-------|
|3-5---------|------------|------------|------------|------5-3---|
|------------|------------|------------|------------|------------|
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?
9/8
|------------------|------5-7-8-7-5---|------------------|----
|------------------|5-6-8-----------8-|6-5---------------|----
|----------2-4-5-7-|------------------|----7-5-4-2-------|----
|----2-3-5---------|------------------|------------5-3-2-|----
|3-5---------------|------------------|------------------|5-3-
|------------------|------------------|------------------|----
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.
5/8
1 - 2 - - |1 - 2 - - | etc
>   >       >  >

Or

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?
More chris flatley lessons:
 + Improving General Rhythmic Coordination For Beginners 12/04/2012 + Relieving Fretting Hand Tension Correct Practice 08/01/2012 + Useful Exercises For Chicago Blues And Old School Rock Soloing 07/30/2012 + Picking And Fretting Fundamentals Correct Practice 07/17/2012 + How Well Do You Know Your Stuff? Correct Practice 06/29/2012 + A Simple Blues Lesson Soloing 05/04/2012 + view all
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