0

I'm looking at a piano arrangement of Right Behind You by Mike Morasky.

The time signature looks like a weird “e”, what does this mean?

Score for "Right Behind You" with a key signature that looks like a lowercase letter "e"

7
  • 4
    What do you mean when you say "E time signature"? The time signature is normal. It is "C" which is the same thing as 4/4. The phrase "Weapon reskins" doesn't make any sense in relation to time signature. Conclusion: You need to elaborate so one can understand the question. Commented Jan 5 at 20:00
  • @ElementsInSpace I wonder whether that edit was too generous in trying to make sense of this question, and whether it was asked in good faith. The puzzling sentence "Weapon reskins in tf2 have always seemed like a strange case to me" was deleted, but when I googled "team fortress 2 weapon reskins" I found a Youtube video in which that sentence is the first words spoken. Commented Jan 5 at 22:09
  • @AndyBonner Maybe. I deleted that sentence because I couldn’t make any sense of it, and it seemed like it was put there by accident — but as you point out, it’s actually some kind of meme. I think my edit turned this into reasonable question (even if it’s probably a duplicate). Commented Jan 5 at 22:38
  • You have to look more carefully. That's not an "E", it's a "C": the "tail" of the upper end of the "C" is a circle. Zoom in the page, and you'll clearly see it. While some programs or copyists may not be as accurate as they should, proper notation requires that any symbol should be carefully placed in order to avoid confusion. For example, dots of dotted notes are always placed above (not within) the line whenever their related note is within a staff/ledger line. See common time. Commented Jan 6 at 6:30
  • 1
    Why are people downvoting this. It does look like an e to a large extent, it's a valid question. With text-based searching being the only real alternative out there, if you don't happen to know the symbol, calling it what it visually looks like to you is the right thing to do. Commented Jan 15 at 3:04

3 Answers 3

8

That e symbol is actually more similar to a c, and is known as common time. It is equivalent to 4/4 time.

There is also a similar symbol, which consists of the same c-like symbol but with a vertical line cutting through it:

enter image description here

This one is known as cut time and is equivalent to 2/2 time.

Check the other answers for a more thorough explanation of the origin of these symbols, their meanings and historical context.

4
  • 1
    As noted in another answer, these symbols are commonly referred to as "common time" and "cut time" in English, but they do not actually stand for those phrases as they were in use for quite some time before the phrases came into use -- and are used equally by musicians whose native languages do not use words starting with "C" to denote these symbols or the meters they represent.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 6 at 4:25
  • @phoog That is what I meant to say, though the wording indeed is not very good. I'll change the wording Commented Jan 6 at 5:07
  • @phoog - I guess cut time is o.k. as there is a cut vertically through the C. Rather than the C standing for cut.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 6 at 7:34
  • @Tim of course it's o.k.; it's just not the origin of the sign. That is, it's not that there was a thing called "cut time" that led people to start using slashes. To say "stands for" implies cause and effect that doesn't exist. "Known as" is rather more accurate (and I have added an upvote accordingly). The example image here is also helpful in that the teardrop or whatever that's called at the beginning of the C curve isn't touching the middle line of the staff, so is rather clearer than the example in the question.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 6 at 10:16
6

Basically the "C"-like symbol means 4/4 today. The origin is a lot more murky and less known (even someone like me who studied music theory as a music major in college didn't know it until today), leading to a common error thinking that the symbol has meant "Common time" (4/4) from the very beginning, although that is the meaning in the past few centuries (not sure since when, but at least since the mid-18th century).

What follows is taken from this article to explain the origin of the symbol. Wikipedia concurs with more details and more technical explanation.

In the 13-17th centuries, people considered music in triple time (that is, with three beats in the bar), to be “perfect”, (something to do with the Holy Trinity – the number three has religious connections!) Perfection was represented by a complete circle, so music in triple time had a full circle as the “time signature” (the correct term for these signs is actually “mensuration sign”).

In contrast, music with 2 or 4 beats in the bar was considered “imperfect”, and was represented by a semi-circle – which happens to also look a lot like a C!

There were four basic time signatures. “Perfectum” means there were three main beats in the bar, and “Imperfectum” means two. When the beat is subdivided into three, it was called “prolatio maior” (shown by a dot), and if it is subdivided into two, it is “prolatio minor”. Here are the four old time signatures, with their modern equivalents:

Mensural time signatures

Here’s what the C time signature used to look like in a manuscript (notice that barlines didn’t exist yet!) Fascimile of an old style "C" time signature

Over time music evolved, and “C” was considered to represent four beats in the bar, rather than two. Mensural rhythms got so complicated that almost nobody could understand them, and the modern “fraction-style” time signatures were invented. But “C” was a convenient and quick symbol, and continued to be used widely.

Please see the article linked above for more details about origin of "C" with a vertical line, which today means "Cut time" (2/2).

6
  • The signs were developed in the late 1200s. The slash could be applied to the full circle as well as to the broken circle (a.k.a. "C"). It means "twice as fast"; that the unit of time was not the semibreve but the breve, hence "alla breve." You can also find C-slash meaning 4/2 as late as Brahms, possibly later, which is less surprising of you take into account the fact that these symbols were used for three or four centuries before bar lines began to be used to delineate measures of uniform length.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 6 at 4:30
  • Surely the dots in two oft hose time sigs would be right where the middle line is, so obscured?
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 6 at 7:37
  • @Tim I think "seldom hose signatures" would be more accurate, don't you? (Sorry, couldn't resist.) More seriously, the dots tend to be rather larger in diameter than the width of the staff line; the mensuration sign isn't necessarily centered on a staff line (so the dot could be in a space); and, in my experience at least, these signs are fairly rare (I believe they're more common in periods with which I am less experienced, namely the 14th century and earlier).
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 6 at 10:09
  • @Tim I was just looking at Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, a collection of sacred pieces in Latin published by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd in 1575 while they had their monopoly on music printing. It is a set of part books printed from movable type. The solution there is to interrupt the staff line inside the circle or half circle when there is a dot inside.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 7 at 11:00
  • @phoog - interesting - many thanks! If the staves were hand-written, it would be easy (and they probably were), but starting with printed staves, not so. No Tippex in those days...
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 7 at 11:04
4

That's not an "e", it is an incomplete circle indicating "imperfect time" or time based on 2 strong beats. This is in contrast to a complete circle indicating "perfect time" or time based on 3 strong beats, perfect like the holy trinity.

That's the historical origin of the sign. It has become more of a stylized "c" over time. Some people now will claim that "c" stands for "common time", but of course this is nonsensical since musical notation is not of English origin. It is more likely that the "common time" moniker derives as a mnemonic from interpreting what has become more or less looking like a "c".

Cut time ("alla breve") is the other sign that survived from the mensural meter symbols. All other meters are these days specified as numeric fractions, or sometimes as simple numbers like a 3 instead of 3/1, notation that was still common in early baroque times but has not survived for much longer than that.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.