# How the time signature affects how to play a melody

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?

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.

• 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. Nov 2, 2013 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. Nov 2, 2013 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, 2013 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. Nov 2, 2013 at 21:05
• I can accent as many beats as I want to in both 4/4 and 12/8. Other time signatures too! Nov 2, 2013 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!

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 ?

• 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! Nov 3, 2013 at 11:27

At the risk of getting slated for extending the subject :-)

Look at the 5th bar of the melody. The bar in 10/8 time. This works beautifully IF you take notice of the tempo indication, dotted quarter = 50. If, however, you choose too fast a tempo (as many do) it becomes an awkward oddity and you'll probably give up on it and slip back into 12/8.

And, all the rest of you - stop showing off! Yes, 12/8 CAN be subdivided in all sorts of ways. But we aren't playing a Hungarian folk dance, we're playing "Memory" from "Cats". It's a slow 4 beats in the bar, each beat subdivided into three. You could write it in 4/4 with triplet eighths, or in 12/8 with straight eights. No difference whatsoever.

"Memory" chooses 12/8. Beethoven, in the "Moonlight" sonata slow movement chooses 4/4 with triplets. (And look how he overlays a dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythm in the melody. Maybe evidence that "Memory" is a good piece, "Moonlight" a great one?)

• Look at an Urtext of Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata and you'll see that it is really in 2/2 time -- the time signature is a C with a vertical line through it. (Don't trust the von Bulow edition.) It has two beats per measure -- two very slow beats, each with 6 triplets. Mar 11, 2016 at 2:35
• Not necessarily that slow. This is an interesting slant - watch it all if you can stand Zander being over-charismatic, or cut to the chase around 23' 25" youtube.com/watch?v=hZIC2f0fMKY Mar 11, 2016 at 14:19
• Beethoven is said to have played it at quarter note = 60. At that tempo it becomes a funeral march, 30 bps. There is a similar passage in Don Giovanni at about that tempo. Mar 12, 2016 at 2:10

OK, first lets address the most basic part of your question - There is a mathematical difference between 4/4 and 12/8. So no you cannot treat it as 4/4. You could treat it as 3/2, but I'll get to that in a bit. I'm thinking (hoping) you actually know this but mis-communicated.

For those who don't understand the math of music, the time signature is basically a fraction to show how many whole notes are in a measure. You can do some division to reduce a time signature to it's most basic elements. So 4/4 can be reduced to 1/1 (i.e. 1) which means one whole note per measure. 3/4 means 3/4ths of a whole note, 1.5 half notes (a dotted half note), or three quarter notes in one measure. 12/8, means 12 eighth notes, or six quarter notes, 3 half notes or 1.5 whole notes (dotted whole) in a measure.

As for the stylistic interpretation - the main reasons for leaving an "unreduced" fraction as the time signature are:

1. Common practice (everyone knows 4/4, who's heard of 1/1?) - clearly not the case for 12/8, but 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8 are fairly common.
2. To indicate what note is the "primary" note and all tempo indications are referring to. i.e. 120 beats per minute in 12/8 is saying there are 120 eighth notes per minute, but in 3/2 would mean 120 half notes - 1/4 the speed. Though this could also be reduced
3. Musicians are an odd lot and like to leave things in odd time signatures for the heck of it. At least that sounds a lot better than saying they were tripping on something when they wrote it... OK, I'm mostly joking about that one.

Arguments about emphasis are completely false. 6/8 is commonly conducted in either 2 or 6 major beats and can be conducted in 1 or 3 also. Even 4/4 often has the highest emphasis on 1 and secondary emphasis on 3, but can be 4 equal beats. Really the style of emphasis should not be interpreted from the time signature. If not spelled out in accents, that is usually divined from the style (march, waltz, etc.) and other artistic interpretation elements.

• I do not think your "mathematical" claim is correct at all: time signatures are not fractions. 12/8 does not mean "12 divided by 8", it means 4 beats of 3/8 notes, i.e. dotted crotchets. Composers (Carl Orff for example) sometimes notate the time signature with the appropriate note symbol underneath, so this would be 4/(dotted crotchet). There are rare exceptions, but then the composer will usually add the different breakup: e.g. 4/8 : 3/8 : 3/8 : 2/8. Dec 20, 2014 at 7:16
• I'm not saying it means "12 divided by 8" but it can be viewed as a fraction. What makes you think it's 4 beats of 3 eighth notes (assume that's what you meant)? It could be 3 beats of 4 eighth notes or 12 beats of 1 eighth note (literally that's what it actually is). That's why I list the various permutations of 6/8, which is much more common. Dec 20, 2014 at 19:55
• 4/4 time means 4 beats per measure and one beat is a quarter note. 3/4 time means 3 beats per measure and one beat = a quarter note. 6/8 time would be 6 beats per measure and one beat = 1/8 note so there would be six beats per measure. I don't see how you can reduce 4/4 time to 1/1 time. Mar 4, 2015 at 6:54

12/8 is very much different from 4/4 time. Although they are both quadruple time the one (4/4) is simple quadruple time with one beat being a crotchet and the other is compound quadruple time with one beat consisting of a dotted crotchet.

This leads to pulses that are very much different. You would in compound quadruple time usually have emphasis on the first quaver of the dotted crotchet beat and in simple triple time, it would usually be the first quaver of a crotchet beat.

There is also in 4/4 time can be a emphasis on the first beat and third beat which you would not usually get with compound time signatures as that emphasis would imply dotted minim beats.

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.

• 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. Nov 2, 2013 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. Nov 2, 2013 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. Nov 2, 2013 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. Nov 2, 2013 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. Nov 3, 2013 at 2:30