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From what I understand of time signatures, the top number indicates the number of beats, except for compound or odd beats. Like 4/4 has 4 crotchet beats, while 6/8 has two groups of 3 quaver beats, so two beats in total(?). Now, it seems to me that listening to upbeats and downbeats is the only way tell the time signature of a song by ear. From what I can tell, in 4/4 time, it goes one & two & three & four &, and so on, so the beginning of every other beat group would get a downbeat. But in 6/8 time it seems to go one two three one two three, where the beginning of each beat group gets a downbeat. So does the beginning of each beat get one downbeat, or does every other beat get a downbeat? Or is it inconsistent?

  • Beats can be different than pulse. 6/8 has six beats a measure, but you can have two pulses in the measure (as you described). Where the pulse is, is determined in context by the music. "Feeling" 6/8 "in 2" is actually often a result of a phenomenon called "hypermeter" which you don't need to remember / worry about. Every beat is a downbeat. Notes that happen between the beats are all "off" or "up" beats. Often "beat" and "pulse" are used interchangeably, but they can also be mutually exclusive. – jjmusicnotes Oct 17 at 4:21
  • I'm confused as to what exactly a "pulse" is. Is it a downbeat? Because you just said that every beat is a downbeat. But when listening to 4/4 in quarter notes, it seems like only beats 1 and 3 get a downbeat. I'm confused. – コナーゲティ Oct 17 at 4:34
  • @jjmusicnotes - I thought hypermeter refers to the feel of which measures are emphasized in a phrase (an easy example is the conductor's instructions for the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 to conduct "ritmo di quattro battute" or one downbeat every 4 measures). – Dekkadeci Oct 17 at 5:34
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    @jjmusicnotes - just trailled through four pages of google 'upbeat', to find a description. So it's not that well known. And it states 'an unaccented beat'. Which, depending on the style of music, could be any! Beat can be different from pulse, but there's no compunction to be. It could also be the very same. Why the snipe at phoog? 'Be nice'! – Tim Oct 17 at 13:26
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    @jjmusicnotes - playing in pop groups in the '60s, we used to do a couple of numbers in 5/4, one of them starting in 4/4. Always loved watching the dancers trying to cope... – Tim Oct 18 at 14:09
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As a general rule, 'down beat' refers to the first and strongest beat in the bar. In a very simple bar of 4/4 the first beat (down beat) is the strongest, the third beat would be strong too but not as strong as the first beat, and then beats 2 and 4 are more like off beats (a bit lighter than the other two). In a 6/8 bar, beats 1 and 4 are the strong beats, therefore 2,3,5 and 6 being lighter. However, remember that it's all quite subtle. The down beats shouldn't be over emphasized or the piece would sound clumpy.
Pulse is more to do with the speed of a piece. But it can also refer to the toe-tapping emphasis you feel when listening to a rhythmic piece.

  • If downbeats and upbeats shouldn't be emphasized, what's the point of having time signatures at all? – コナーゲティ Oct 17 at 4:53
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    I said not to 'over' emphasise them, (for the sake of musicality). – Jomiddnz Oct 17 at 5:01
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But in 6/8 time it seems to go one two three one two three, where the beginning of each beat group gets a downbeat. So does the beginning of each beat get one downbeat, or does every other beat get a downbeat? Or is it inconsistent?

This will depend on the tempo:

In popular use, beat can refer to a variety of related concepts, including pulse, tempo, meter, specific rhythms, and groove.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(music)

6/8 can be felt (heard, conducted and played) quite differently:

In a very slow tempo as a Largo each beat can be felt as a downbeat. A guitarist might play each beat as an arpeggiated downbeat 1 2 3 4 5 6

Adagio: A conductor could vary his figures accentuating 1 2 3 4 5 6

Referring to rhythm and style a minuet, English Waltz can be played 1 3 4 6 (playing crotchets downbeat, quavers upbeat).

The same pattern will fit in a medium tempo like a shuffle rhythm or swing.

In a faster tempo (steady beat, March) the conductor will give just 1 4 like a 2/4 time with triplets. The strumming pattern for the guitar could be the same as 2/4 (2 downbeats 1 2 respectively 1 4 in 6/8 time, where the second beat will be played less strong or tapped (stopped).

  • That was not meant! Thank you for reading, guidot. This must it have been happened when changed the downbeat accentuation in bold letters. I’ve not seen this. We can delete this comments right now. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 17 at 7:09
  • The fact that tempo would affect the downbeats seems needlessly convoluted to me. I still don't understand what a "pulse" is as opposed to a beat. What I'm getting from this is that the downbeats are inconsistent, and I don't think I'm interested in memorizing which beats will be downbeats in different tempos. I just want a textbook answer regarding downbeats, and I would like to know if it's possible to tell the time signature of a piece of music by listening. – コナーゲティ Oct 17 at 8:47
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If pieces had no time signature, players wouldn't have much of a clue how they were to be played, without laboriously going through and analysing first.

So, more often than not, a time signature is written at the beginning. It can be an exact feature, or can give a rough guide to the mapping of the rhythm of a piece.

Theory puts these time signatures into several different types, 4/4 being the most used.

4/4 is based on 4 beats in each bar, so there will be an underlying feel of a count of 1 2 3 4. Here, as in most mainstream music, the first beat of each bar is deemed to be more emphasised than any other. That's the main pulse. Some music in 4/4 doesn't even play on that beat 1, but it's felt (by most) nevertheless.

Often in 4/4 there is another 'sub-pulse' found on beat 3 - hemce 1 2 3 4.

6/8 is compound time. It's that because there are two distinct feels in it. It can be counted 1 2 3 4 5 6 using the quavers, or, 1 2 splitting it into larger parts. In slower pieces, the former works better. In faster 6/8s, it's easier to count/feel the latter.

It's not an exact science - it's not even a science at all - and all we try to do is make it clearer for people to understand. (And 6/8 seems to be one that is often misunderstood!).

At the end of the day, it's simpler to compartmentalise music into smaller sections so it's easier to read or even listen to - often yu may tap your foot or clap in time, and where that happens gives a clue as to how we split music into bars. They are simply put there by humans to simplify it. Sometimes it doesn't appear to have worked!

I'm sure at least some of this has already been covered in previous q/a.

  • I've searched other posts on the site and didn't find much to my liking. "6/8 is compound time. It's that because there are two distinct feels in it. It can be counted 1 2 3 4 5 6 using the quavers, or, 1 2 splitting it into larger parts. In slower pieces, the former works better. In faster 6/8s, it's easier to count/feel the latter." How would the dotted crotchets work better for faster pieces? Wouldn't larger notes work better for slower pieces? – コナーゲティ Oct 17 at 7:55
  • It either gets counted 1 2 3 4 5 6 or 1- 2- . There's more time to count all six in slower tempos, not so in quick ones. – Tim Oct 17 at 9:30
  • "If pieces had no time signature, players wouldn't have much of a clue how they were to be played, without laboriously going through and analysing first." Depends on the piece, as well as the players. There has been much music written and performed that isn't organized using time signatures; it's important not to discount this music. – jjmusicnotes Oct 17 at 12:22
  • @jjmusicnotes - I'm certainly not disparaging or discounting that sort of music, but most would agree that it's got to be more difficult to play it in a meaningful way - far simpler if one is told information that I, for one, find very useful. – Tim Oct 17 at 13:05
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Certain time signatures don't allow you to guess where the pulse is, and require you to figure it out from the music. 5/4 5/8, 7/4, 7/8 all have variable pulse locations which can potentially change from measure to measure--but hopefully not often because that can be confusing.

5/4 and 5/8 can have the pulses 1 2 3 4 5 or 1 2 3 4 5
7/4 and 7/8 can have the pulses 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Sometimes the composer will mention how the pulse should be felt but otherwise you have to look at how the general flow of the music is written to determine it.

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