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In learning the guitar I have run across various time signatures. In each time signature it seems as if you are supposed to emphasize different beats. Is this something that you just have to intuit, is there a formula for this, or is it just convention?

For example:

  • 3/4 you emphasize beat 1
  • 4/4 you emphasize beat 1 and 3
  • 5/4 you emphasize beat 1 and 4
  • 6/8 you emphasize beat 1 and 4 (at least in what I have played so far).
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6/8 has 2 beats each subdivided into triplets. If the top number is divisible by 3, except for 3 itself, then it is a compound time signature. As far as emphasis is concerned, there is no formula but our brain tends to group things into 2's and 3's. Even quadruple is a form of duple. For some of the newer time signatures there is no set way but 5/4 tends to be 2/4 + 3/4 or reversed. Learn to feel the music and you'll generally group things in a natural and musical way. Music has no set formula(or is so complex only feeling can understand it) –  Anonymous Jan 29 '11 at 5:02
Not all 4/4 is 1 and 3, plenty of music emphasizes the backbeat (2 and 4), though I don't know enough about the subject to make a concrete answer. From my limited experience it's more about the style of music than the time signature. –  Anonymous Jan 29 '11 at 6:47
5/4 can be subdivided into groups of 2 and 3, or even 2, 2, and 1. Example: "My Wave" by Soundgarden is 2 and 3 rather than 3 and 2. –  Alex Basson Jan 29 '11 at 14:15
Just this past week I ran across a piece of music with a time signature of 3/2. I had an extremely hard time trying to figure out what beat they were emphasizing. It seemed to be the third beat. –  Anonymous Feb 9 '11 at 22:01
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1 Answer

There is no clear and fast rule. The emphasis is entirely dependent on the rhythm of the tune. While there are some standard feels for different time signatures, they are broken as often as they are kept. In terms of standard feels, I'd say that all your examples are correct. It's important to note that 5/4 with accents on the 1 and 4 feels just like 3 + 2 (ala Take 5) and 6/8 generally feels like 2/4 with triplets instead of 1/4 notes (like House of the Rising Sun).

But if you listen to anything that really f&*ks with time signatures, these rules will fall apart quickly. Listen to Schism by Tool, for instance. The main riff goes back and forth between 5/8 and 7/8, but it's just a triplet and then 1/8th notes. The accent seems to roll between the beats. And then it changes to 6/8 and 7/8 and the feel of the piece keeps. Eventually the tune ends in 4/4 with one of the most rolling, odd sounding 4/4s I've heard in a while. After 5 minutes in odd signatures, it's almost hard to believe that the end is in the "common" time signature.

So basically, yes, you've got the standard down. But all the interesting stuff happens on the edges by bucking the rules. Even the standard 5/4 piece, Take Five, was revolutionary because no one had really done that before. It's only "standard" now because Brubeck paved the way.

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Um Brubeck wasn't the first to popularize 5/4. Stravinsky was just one of many that popularized "odd" time signatures, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rite_of_Spring. There were many others and in some cultures such odd time signatures are used more than "even" time signatures(for lack of a better term). –  Anonymous Jan 29 '11 at 4:31
Yes, but Brubeck brought it to the mass jazz audience...That's why he gets the main Props.... –  Anonymous Jan 29 '11 at 16:07
When talking about 5/4, let's not forget Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War. –  neilfein Jan 29 '11 at 20:26
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