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I'm writing about Queen songs and have encountered some interesting differences of opinion in respect of the time signature of Killer Queen. I have always heard the song in 4/4, as defined by the five clicks at the start of the song and - to my ears - the strong sense of the beat being four crotchets to the bar. The Complete Works book also has the song in Common time.

I was surprised, therefore, to see that advice for students studying the song for exams is that the song is in 12/8. Yes, you can break up the shuffle rhythm into 12 very fast quavers if you want, but I don't think this reflects the feel of the song at all. This is in contrast to, say, Somebody To Love which is undeniably in 12/8, the triplets being all important to the feel of the song.

I presume there isn't a right or wrong answer and, at the end of the day, it's a matter of how the rhythm is heard by the individual. I just can't hear 12 quavers in a bar, especially when the clicks are in such a strict 4/4!

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    “I'd be glad to hear opinions on this. I presume there isn't a right or wrong answer” This site is not intended for such questions Feb 2, 2023 at 2:21
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    A quick search for sheet music turns up examples in both 4/4 swing and 12/8. To my ear, the (computer-generated) playback of the versions notated in 12/8 matches the original more closely, but of course the 4/4 version could be made more accurate by notating triplets instead of swing.
    – Selvek
    Feb 2, 2023 at 18:03
  • @ToddWilcox I must say you are right. I suppose that can be remedied by editing the question to ask if there is a technical or theoretical reason why it should be one way or the other. Feb 2, 2023 at 21:17

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The bottom line is it CAN be any of those things. It can be accurately written in 12/8 and also in 4/4 with an indication of swing (or shuffle) 8th notes throughout. While not traditional, this type of notation has become commonplace over the years. There is no discernible difference between 2 swing 8th notes in 4/4 time and a quarter-eighth in 12/8 time. The actual difference is in our heads, or how we internalize and conceptualize it.

In your case you hear it in 4/4 with swing or shuffle 8ths. I hear it that way as well. 12/8 tends to emphasize all 3 notes per beat as in “Somebody to Love or “We are the Champions” while 4/4 with swing 8ths stresses the first and third 8th note triplet of each beat.

Even though you and I hear and feel it in 4/4 (and I personally would prefer to sight read it that way) we do have to accept the fact that the song can be conceptualizad by someone else and written accurately in 12/8 as well. I have seen sheet music in 12/8 for this song online. Too bad we can’t just ask the composer how he felt or heard it, that would be the last word on the subject.

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    I agree. There are folk who would disagree that swing is exactly what you describe in para. 2, and I'm surprised no-one has taken that opportunity to dv! +1.
    – Tim
    Feb 2, 2023 at 11:31
  • @Tim, You’re right, I’m surprised the can of worms didn’t tip over on that one, I edited it to “swing or shuffle”. ! I of course know that there are varying degrees of swing but I used the word “swing” in a strictly clinical way. Feb 2, 2023 at 17:49
  • There are swingers, and swingers...
    – Tim
    Feb 2, 2023 at 18:00
  • How do you notate the rhythm for the lyric "dynamite with a" in a swing time? In 12/8 it's pretty clearly six eight-notes with the middle two tied together, but I'm not sure how you'd indicate this rhythm in a swing 4/4. Feb 3, 2023 at 15:12
  • Too bad indeed.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 3, 2023 at 18:50
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A time signature is a notational choice, not a property of the music itself. It's improper to say that a song (referring to the finished audio product) is "in" a particular time signature. It's like speculating on how a movie script is formatted based on watching the movie. Given that Freddie Mercury probably never wrote the song down in standard notation, the question as stated has little meaning.

What a song does have is meter. Killer Queen is pretty clearly in a quadruple meter, and given how consistent the subdivision is, calling it compound quadruple seems to be the best fit.

If we then want to transcribe the song in standard notation, we have to choose what type of note we would like to get the beat. The dotted quarter is the most conventional choice given the style and tempo, so 12/8 would be the most fitting choice.

But, you could also choose 4/4 and have lots of triplets. In modern engraving software this can be an annoying choice as we have to invoke the triplet tool constantly, but if we are writing by hand we can omit the "3" over the triplets and let the beaming imply it, and then dotted quarters become quarters, and it actually ends up being a bit simpler. There is no effect on the way the music ends up sounding.

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    I have played this in a version for brass band. To make it playable for amateurs each change 4/4 to 12/8 and so on (I think there may have been a few 2/4s and 3/4s in there to get it tidy) was notated clearly. It was actually a good way to do it, but the older musicians just refused to play it. It is probably too difficult for a village band to get on top of. :-(
    – RedSonja
    Feb 2, 2023 at 14:06
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No doubt someone will come up with a much more comprehensive answer, but just to get a head start…

It's not a shuffle.*
I've never really thought about it before, but the piano is clearly in triplets not a shuffle. It establishes that by the end of the second 'real' bar, with the descending bass line. I'd have probably written it in 4/4 triplets, which is what it feels like in my head, but I guess 12/8 might be easier to read.
You couldn't just write it in straight 8s & write "swing" at the top, like you could with a shuffle.

*It's not a shuffle because it really knows where its triplets are, right the way through. If it was written as dotted or notated as 'shuffle' or 'swing' someone unfamiliar with the piece would probably swing it just precisely the wrong way. It would be like writing Everybody Wants to Rule the World as a shuffle.
12/8 or 4/4 triplets takes away that temptation.

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    It would help if you explain why it can't be a shuffle. One argument is that if you try to play it straight, the lyrics become impossible to sing. Feb 2, 2023 at 20:05
  • I agree it’s not “Steamroller Blues” or “Cold Shot” but it definitely has elements of a shuffle rhythm. Feb 2, 2023 at 20:57
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    @reinierpost [& John] - I thought I had explained, but I've added more to the answer. It's 'not a shuffle' because … it's not. It's triplets & it sits in triplets even when the 2nd triplet is missing. No matter where Freddie lays off the vocal timing, it all sits firmly on a solid base of 'all three triplets' whether stated or not.
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 3, 2023 at 8:51
  • "It's not because it's not" is not an argument. It only makes sense to someone who already knows. "It's not because it's in triplets" is not clear, either. I think what you're trying to say is that a shuffle doesn't have three equal triplet beats, the second beat is not separate but an elongation to the first. But if that's the case, it should be possible to demonstrate that by example, so it becomes clear to someone who doesn't already know how to determine that. Feb 3, 2023 at 10:50
  • 'by example'… we started with an example, Killer Queen. You just have to listen to it. I also mentioned Everybody Wants to Rule the World, which is also as 'not a shuffle' as it gets. [also Champions & Somebody from another answer] tbh, if you can't hear it, perhaps you never will. Some people do, some don't. Struggling to think of a shuffle that's not blues or jazz… came up with this. Though the drummer fills in triplets, the song [right down to the title] is a shuffle, not triplets. youtube.com/watch?v=HQZBaJAngH8
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 3, 2023 at 12:29
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I have a copy of the sheet music "Queen Greatest Hits - Off the Record", an accurately (as far as I can tell) transcribed version of the recorded songs (for example, the transcription of Killer Queen has seven guitar parts). ISBN 0-86359-950-8. Transcribed by Barnes Music Engraving Ltd. Copyright 1992 International Music Publications Ltd. "An EMI Music Publishing Limited Publication".

This notates Killer Queen in 12/8, with occasional changes to 6/8 (for the words "you can't de-", "that way incli-", near the end of the guitar solo, and after "she's out to get you").

However, I also have a copy of a keyboard-vocal-chord symbol version (I'm sure you know the sort of thing - they're not noted for their accuracy). ISBN 0-86175-178-7. Edited by Cecil Bolton. Copyright 1981 EMI Music Publishing Ltd.

In this simplified arrangement, Killer Queen is given with a time signature of "C", notated straight, with no indication of triplets. Again, there are several changes of time signature through the song: the finger clicks start on a downbeat, the first four fill a bar, and then there is a bar of 2/4 to allow the word "Moet" to fall on a downbeat. There are brief changes to 2/4 through the song, similar to the changes to 6/8 in the "Off the Record" transcription, though not in exactly the same places. There is also a change to 3/4 "guaranteed to blow your", to 3/8 for the word "mind", to 3/4 for "any time, ooh", and back to C. (I'm not sure what to make of that!)

As others have said, time signatures are a feature of notation, rather than of the audible music. When notating music you can choose, and it may depend on what your aims are (e.g. accuracy with respect to a recording, vs. readability, vs. communicating "feel").

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  • I think my mistake was in putting too much faith in the 'Complete Works' transcription, edited by the aforementioned Cecil Bolton. On a closer inspection, it does a very poor job at notating the melody!
    – welshbloom
    Feb 4, 2023 at 10:39
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There's a point missing here in that 12/8 is compound time - there are not 12 quaver beats in a bar, there are 4 dotted crotchet beats that can each be subdivided into 3 quavers. In that way, 12/8 and 4/4 are rather similar - it's the subdivisions that differ.

In Killer Queen, the subdivisions of each beat don't sound like halves - listening to it, it sounds like three things per beat (or at least a crotchet plus a quaver per beat). Hence 12/8 - although it could be notated as 4/4 with triplets, or as swung quavers that were being interpreted as triplets. (Or with different note lengths as various other time signatures, but that would be more unusual)

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  • It is understood and assumed that 12/8 is 4 beats per bar, not 12. That’s why I didn’t mention it in my answer. Feb 2, 2023 at 21:04
  • Normally yes, but the question was very much talking about 12 fast quavers in a bar in a way that implies the OP was thinking of that as the beat.
    – meta
    Feb 2, 2023 at 22:33
  • I didn’t get that from the question, especially given the last sentence of paragraph 2 where he mentions “the triplets” in reference to 12/8. Regardless your point is valid. Feb 3, 2023 at 1:16

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