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Everywhere I look, every resource I read, says that time signatures determine the "feel" and meter of the music. And then the person giving the explanation will show a piece of music as an example of a type of some meter (usually a piece of music that doesn't have readily accessible sheet music); but then someone will argue that it's actually so-and-so a meter, and then a big internet argument ensues.

The time signature is supposed to determine the "feel." But I need hardly say that two different pieces with the same time signature can have very different "feels." A lot of Shostakovitch "feels" unmetered (or maybe I have no ear for music).

People will insist that certain beats will be stronger with certain time signatures. Yet I can find many examples in music where a different beat gets the accent, and also other theories of music that disagree on which beat should be accented.

The first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto is common time. Yet the grand piano solo at the beginning is shoved into one measure, regardless of the time signature, and nothing bad seems to happen.

opening measure

I'm currently learning Beethoven's Eighth Piano Sonata, and till recently I misread it and thought it was in common time. Turns out it's not common time (4/4) but actually cut time (2/2). What's the difference? You still have four quarter notes per measure. How would it have felt different if it had been written in common time instead of cut?

And then you get Rachmaninoff, who will do weird things like change the time signature for one measure only. In Op. 23 No. 5, measure 16 changes to 2/4 time for one measure, and then back to common time. In Op. 32 No. 12, measure 13 changes to 6/8 time for one measure, and then back to 12/8 for the rest of the piece (I'd post pictures, but the website won't let me).

I cannot for the life of me figure out what purpose these time signature changes serve (and neither can my piano teacher).

The only purpose of measures I can think of is if a conductor wants to say: "All right, let's take it from measure 42!"

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There's an important distinction between meter, which is a musical concept, and time signatures and measures, which are notation concepts. Notation must always be in service of the music, and to the reader. There are an infinite number of ways to notate a piece of music, but only a small subset of those ways will help the reader not want to gouge their eyes out.

I don't think you are arguing that meter doesn't exist, but as long as it does, notation needs some way of communicating that to the reader. Measure numbers and time signatures are the tools embedded in the western classical notation tradition that provides this. In some cases, the differences are overt readability and economy of INK (you're going to waste a lot of time writing flags by notating a piece of music that should be in 2/4 as 2/32), but in many cases, the differences can be subtle, and even rely on the cultural context of the existing body of notated music. (In my opinion, this often accounts for the difference between notating in 4/4 and 2/2.)

A couple of days ago, a jazz band I was in tried playing a piece of music notated in 7/8+3/4. Each measure contains 13 eighth notes. This time signature tells us what we can expect from the rest of the band if, for example, we are counting rests and need to know when to come in, or if we get off and need to get back with the rest of the band. It also tells us whether to interpret a note as a downbeat or a pickup, based on where in the measure it is located. Further examination of rest grouping and other notational features tells us that the 7/8 part of the measure is often grouped as 2+2+3, but sometimes it is grouped as 3+2+2 — information NOT contained within the time signature, but still relevant.

We tried playing the same piece of music notated as 4/4, 4/4, 5/4 (26 eighth notes) — wherein one sequence of those measure equaled two measures of the above. The "music" itself was identical, but all of a sudden, the notation was completely discongruous, and it was IMPOSSIBLE to understand where even the BEAT was relative to the notation. Sure, you can theoretically execute this notation in isolation much more easily than counting sevens, but when playing in an ensemble, every musician MUST be on the "same page" and be able to feel the beats and groupings as a single musical apparatus. Metric notation is HUGELY important in making that work.

And don't discount the importance of rehearsal efficiency. If we didn't care about rehearsals, we wouldn't need notation in the first place.

  • +1 for drawing the distinction between musical and notational concepts! – Brian THOMAS Nov 30 '16 at 18:14
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Everywhere I look, every resource I read, says that time signatures determine the "feel" and meter of the music.

Either these materials are wrong, or you're interpreting them incorrectly. The time signature doesn't determine the meter, the music itself does that. A time signature is a device we use when notating music that makes it easy to see where in the meter each note falls. The composer/engraver should choose the time signature that matches up with the music in the cleanest way.

People will insist that certain beats will be stronger with certain time signatures.

This is also incorrect. Different genres of music accent beats differently, but we use the same set of time signatures to notate them out of simplicity. Again, time signatures do not determine anything about the music.

The first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto is common time. Yet the grand piano solo at the beginning is shoved into one measure, regardless of the time signature, and nothing bad seems to happen.

What you have here is a cadenza, a portion of the music that is more free-form, and which therefore doesn't fit into our notational systems as well.

Turns out it's not common time (4/4) but actually cut time (2/2). What's the difference?

Not much. 4/4 vs. 2/2 in particular is a fuzzy distinction for exactly the reasons you listed, and much of the time the choice between them is more about history and convention. Marches are almost always in cut time, for example.

Also note that you could always double or halve all of the note durations and adjust the bottom of the time signature. For example, take a piece notated in 4/4, cut everything in half (quarters turn into eighths, etc.), and change the time signature to 4/8. Basically the same thing, but less conventional. Musicians would look at it and probably assume that it was supposed to be played very fast, which may or may not be correct.

It's also very common in musical theater for the arranger to just write 4/4 (probably because it was the default in their software) when really the music would be better served to be notated in 2/2 because of its speed.

And then you get Rachmaninoff, who will do weird things like change the time signature for one measure only.

This is because the music is too complicated, and its rhythm changing so much that it doesn't fit neatly into one time signature. These one measure time changes are there to account for a rhythmic hiccup or extension.

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