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I cannot figure out the actual difference between these two beats.
Isn't it sufficient to have only 2/4 (or 4/4 )?

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Honestly, meter and accent are very separate concerns, but that is not the popular intuition of so many (even professional) musicians. But if, as a composer, I were to give you a piece in 2/4 and the same piece rewritten in 4/4, I would expect the effect to be more pronounced over larger phrases than for each measure. If you find yourself focusing too hard on accents on a per measure basis, you're probably not paying enough attention to phrasing. Meter is simply there to give you a sense of how to piece together a coherent interpretation of the entire work, not "where to put the accent." –  tjb1982 May 22 at 0:51
    

7 Answers 7

up vote 42 down vote accepted

Go for a walk. Count each step, in twos or fours. Tread heavier on the ones.

One two One two One two One two

One two three four One two three four

They feel different, don't they? This is the difference.

And yet there is an equivalence between them. Walk at the same tempo, but count to four twice as fast, so you're stepping on the One and the three.

One (two) three (four)

This feels like the 2/4 rhythm again, except for the in-between-steps counting you're doing.

This sort of equivalence comes up all the time. In environments where musicians play without sheet music, it's quite possible that the drummer thinks he's playing in 4/4 (with triplets), while the guitarist thinks he's playing in 12/8. In this example, what the drummer calls a triplet, is three 8th notes for the guitarist.

When a composer scores their music, they choose the time signature that they believe conveys the feeling most clearly to the musicians, while being easy to read.

  • 2/4 with 4 quavers to the bar at a slow tempo.
  • 4/4 with 4 crotchets to the bar at double the tempo.

    -- that's mostly a readability choice.

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Just one thing, when marching the first beat is on the LEFT foot, see this wrong in movies a lot, drives me crazy! –  user2588 Jul 7 '12 at 17:36
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@KimDavisHanson from a military/dancing point of view I'm sure that's important. From a musical point of view, it's not. I guess it would help feel the beat if on the first beat you were landing with your strongest foot. –  slim Jul 9 '12 at 16:22
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@user2588: seen this xkcd? –  leftaroundabout Oct 5 '13 at 9:17

The other answers are all essentially correct, but I think a critical point is missing.

There aren't just fully "strong" and fully "weak" beats; there are also beats of medium strength (and other varieties). 4/4 is emphasized like this:

ONE two three four

Note the half-accent on the third beat, different from what slim mentioned. If you're playing triplets, that works out to:

ONE two three four five six

Slim was right in saying that 4/4 with tripletted quarters indistinguishable from 12/8 with normal quarters, but it's only true because of that emphasis on the third beat. 12/8 is emphasized like so:

ONE two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve

With quarters (combining pairs of eighths) that works out to:

ONE two three four five six

Which is exactly the same as the above 4/4 with triplets.


Now to get to your specific question, 2/4 has no medium beat, so four quarters would be emphasized like this:

ONE two ONE two

This emphasis gives a noticeably different feel to the music than 4/4 does.

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+1 -- it's detail I didn't want to include, for fear of making the answer too long, but you did a great job. I would add; all of this makes intuitive sense with experience. Perhaps the best thing for the beginner is to take it on trust until one day it clicks. –  slim Feb 29 '12 at 10:59
    
... although, to be pedantic, it's your choice whether to put any emphasis on the third beat of 4/4. Or in reggae, put more emphasis on the 3 than on the 1! –  slim Feb 29 '12 at 11:00
    
That's a fair point as well, you can absolutely play with non-standard emphasis. –  Matthew Read Feb 29 '12 at 14:59
    
This. Excellent answer. –  BobRodes May 22 at 0:37
    
I agree that there is a tendency toward these strong/weak patterns but I don't believe it is by any means universal. For more esoteric example 5/8 could be either (ONE two Three four five) vs (ONE two three Four five), and higher counts have even more possibilities. There's no reason a composer couldn't intend for 4/4 to be counted (ONE Two three four) or (one Two three FOUR), although this might be difficult to pull off in a way that would be deemed "legitimate" by any listeners - but such things define entire styles of music. –  Darren Ringer Nov 14 at 4:02

It also has to do with strong and weak beats. In 2/4, everyother beat (the one in each measure) is a strong down beat. In 4/4, every fourth beat (the one in each measure) is a strong down beat. It is all about accents and feel, so there is a major difference.

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It's all about the feel in the music. Sometimes it really doesn't matter, and it is very difficult to say what is more natural.

But often you have distinguised beat at the first in each measure.

If it is a march, you have the first beat on the right foot when marching to it, and it is natural to have a 2/4.

Rock music often has a beat pattern that more or less repeats itself each 4th beat, and thus it is more natural to have a 4/4.

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Sorry, but "one-two, one-two" would be the way I would count 2 bars of 2/2 time.

I count 2/4 time as "ONE-and-TWO-and". The beat is bouncy in motion and "rocks" back and forth from one count to the next. It creates a firm downbeat and backbeat .

I count 4/4 time as "ONE-two-three-four". The beat is circular in motion and "rolls" from one count to the next. You can play faster with 4/4 time.

A time signature is somewhat arbitrary... each player is free to express himself or herself in whatever time frame works best for him or her. Fiddlers often write out their music in 2/2 time (to reduce repetitive eighth note passages) but actually play in 2/4 time.

I teach beginner acoustic guitar and play bluegrass, most often expressed in 4/4 time -- and old time music, most often expressed in 2/4 time. We play regularly in 2/4, 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8 times.

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How can you play 2/2 in 2/4? 2/2 means 2 half-notes per measure, and 2/4 means two quarter notes per measure. They are in no way equal. If you say that you count 4 beats per measure in the 2/2, it is really "ONE-and-TWO-and". If you say that you think double tempo of what is written, it's alla breve, not 2/4. (Actually the time signature for alla breve is per definition 2/2.) –  awe May 23 at 8:02
    
@awe - they can easily be equal. Half notes and quarter notes at the same tempo are not the same, but at different tempos could be equal to each other. –  Tim yesterday

@MatthewRead's answer above hits the nail on the head. There is another reason that 4/4 may be used instead of 2/4 and that's for the ease of reading the notes from the page.

For example, in American Oldtime music there is a strong 2/4 feeling to it, but it's easier to read if no note values are below an eighth note or a dotted eighth. So the music is notated as four beats to the bar (measure) even though the music is played two beats to the bar: half-notes are notated as whole notes, eighth notes as quarter notes, etc.

Nowadays, 2/4 in traditional dance music is usually notated in 4/4, although older books often notate it "correctly" in 2/4 and if you can't handle a dotted sixteenth may God have mercy on your soul.

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The short answer: The difference is whether it's intended that we emphasize 2 or 4 beats per measure, and this distinction is ultimately pretty arbitrary.

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protected by Shevliaskovic Nov 3 at 21:14

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