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I was playing on my clarinet the song Memory from the musical, Cats. It is written in 12/8 time. Although I know what that means -- the equivilent of 12 eight notes in a bar, I don't understand how it affects the rhythm. Would I play it differently if it were 4/4 time?

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4 Answers 4

Yes. Is there a difference between 2/4 and 4/4 explains this using 2/4 and 4/4. However, this is a little different because it is compound meter. 12/8 has four beats divided into three equal parts. It would be counted like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

The primary accent is on the first beat, the secondary accent is on the seventh, and there are two subordinate accents on beats four and ten.

4/4 would be completely different because it is simple meter.

1 2 3 4

There are four beats with accents on the first and third. If Memory was arranged in 4/4 time, it would most likely be arranged in triplets (one set per beat). This would naturally change the accents to fall on the (original) first and seventh beats with the fourth and tenth being almost non-accented. Also, if played at the same tempo as the original, the beats' duration would be a third of the original.

This would give the piece a completely different feel assuming the conductor interprets it correctly.

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I disagree. If you're playing in 12/8 at a tempo where it is reasonable to feel it in 4 (i.e. the dotted quarter note gets the beat), the end result is the same as if it was in 4/4 with each beat subdivided into triplets. The difference is in the notation, and the choice is one of convenience. They are equivalent. –  charlieparker Nov 2 '13 at 19:38
I was assuming the beats would be divided into their natural durations. 4/4 will sound like 2/2 if each measure is divided into two half-notes. –  American Luke Nov 2 '13 at 19:44
@American Luke - your examples are fine, and the two are virtually the same. Every tune will accent slightly differently in response to the phrasing of the melody itself. Your two examples are showing that in 4/4 the accents are nearly the same as they would be if each of the 4 beats was split into triplets - as in 12/8.The subordinate emphases on 2 and 4 in 4/4 become those shown at 4 and 10 in 12/8. –  Tim Nov 2 '13 at 20:48
12/8 has four accented beats. 4/4 only has two. 12/8 will also have a more triplet-like feel to it. –  American Luke Nov 2 '13 at 21:05
I can accent as many beats as I want to in both 4/4 and 12/8. Other time signatures too! –  charlieparker Nov 2 '13 at 23:14

There's a tricky subtlety in time signatures like 12/8, but I'll do my best to explain!

Unless it's in with some odd time signatures, 12/8 can be split up in a few ways if we disregard feel that I'll explore here, all having 12 8th notes (bear with me, there multiple parts to this answer)

  • 3 groups of 4 eighth notes. (3/2)

    this would mean that the way to think is in minims/half notes, 3 of them to be precise, because that's when each new group would begin. However, the convention to mark 3 minims is 3/2 as the time signature. same notes and time, but a different stress. here's how that would sound stress wise

    Mem - - ry - - - All A Lone in the|Moon - - Light - -

  • 6 groups of 2 eighth notes(6/4)

    this would mean that the way to think is in crotchets/quarter notes, 6 of them to be precise, The in this case would be to mark 6 crotchets as 6/4.Like before, here's how that would sound.

    Mem - - ry - - - All A Lone in the|Moon - - Light - -

note that in the above 2 options, the stresses fall in weird places, out of sync with the words. The song sounds very odd if the words you put stress on are "A" and "In"(though it does sound pretty funny). now for the difference between 6/8 and 12/8, which is more subtle

In Compound times like 6/8 and 12/8 we think of the beats in threes. 6/8 is 2 groups of 3 quavers/eighth notes or - 1 and a 2 and a. 12/8 is 4 groups of 3 quavers/eighth notes or - 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a.

I know what you may be thinking, 12/8 is just 2 lots of 6/8. At least that's how I thought about them for a long time! look again at the stresses in bold that I've mentioned above. the first one in each group is the 1st beat of the bar and the strongest. the second is also a strong beat of the bar, but slightly weaker than the first. In 4/4 This is the same thing the 1 and 3 in 1 2 3 4|1 2 3 4.

So now if we apply this heavy handed explanation of mine to the words, in 6/8 you would have:

mem - - ry - -| - All A Lone in the|Moon - - Light- - -| - - - - - -

and in 12/8 you would have:

mem - - ry - - - All A Lone in the|Moon - - Light- - - - - - - - -

The difference is, that in 12/8 your stresses happen less often, here giving the music a softer quality. If you try emphasising on the bold syllables you'll find that the 12/8 stresses flow far more naturally than the 6/8 stresses do.

To take it one step further, perhaps into speculation, the Strongest first beat in 12/8 falls on the syllables Mem, and moon which are also the two longest held notes in the music. In 6/8, they would also fall on Lone and Light which are intended to be shorter passing notes rather than spotlights. From a lyrical perspective, lone and light are the weaker/less important ideas in the bar, so you put them on the weaker beats and make them shorter to give way for the stronger ideas. Then the strong ideas get more space(in this case a dotted crotchet of more space!)

I hope that wasn't too ott of an answer, great question!

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There is, in my opinion, and those of seasoned musicians I've discussed this with, no difference between the two as far as emphasis is concerned. Every tune will have its own 'feel' rhythmically, and apart from the 'standard' - beat no. one is usually the most important/ emphasised beat,12/8 is just a version of 4/4 with a triplet feel.

Often swing tunes are written out in 4/4 with the instruction at the head stating a triplet feel has to happen. If 12/8 was different, then why would they be written in 4/4 ? Probably to make life easier for both the writer and the reader.

Every muso. will have played tunes in,say, 4/4 that differed in the feel from one to another.Reggae, for example, is 4/4, but the feel is rather different from most other 4/4 tunes.

My answer may not be technically correct, but as far as practical playing and performance is concerned, there we are. Isn't that what this site is about ?

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I think it depends on the composer also. There's a song called king kong written by Frank Zappa which is in 3/8. For all intents and purposes it is essentially in 6/8 and would be just as easy to notate that way. But he went to the trouble of making it 3 to get his point across about where the emphasis falls. I imagine some composers are less strict about the time sig and some are more strict, we'll need to ask Andrew Lloyd Webber! –  Alexander Troup Nov 3 '13 at 11:27

Meter has to do only with measurement. 8th note triplets in 4/4 time is identical metrically to 12/8 meter.

How you play the notes is a matter of context, preference or convention. There are many concurrent factors that can influence this.

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music.stackexchange.com/a/5625/1678. Meter is not only the measurement, but it defines the feel of the music. Perhaps a computer might interpret the two the same, but when played right, they will be accented differently. –  American Luke Nov 2 '13 at 21:18
That's silly. Convention might influence the interpretation of certain meters, but that doesn't make it a designation of "feel", whatever that means. –  tjb1982 Nov 2 '13 at 21:25
For example, if I play three bars of music in 4/4 and the same music spread over four bars of 3/4, I will play the two phrases quite differently even though the notes are the same. –  American Luke Nov 2 '13 at 21:29
I maintain my disagreement with @American Luke, and side with tjb1982 on this one. 4/4 triplet feel = 12/8. You'll often encounter music in 4/4 with a description to the effect of "12/8 afro-cuban feel" or "12/8 shuffle", and it is notated in 4/4 to make it easier to sight read. –  charlieparker Nov 2 '13 at 23:09
@AmericanLuke This argument is weak. Study Guillaume de Machaut, Carnatic music (or even Brahms) for countless examples of why. In a word, isorhythm. Meter and accent are often correlated, but they are not by any means fixed. –  tjb1982 Nov 3 '13 at 2:30

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