Do You Have The Time?

Posted by Vancouver Opera On 12:17 PM
Maestro DeMain says Nixon in China has 1,850 meter changes during the course of the opera. That's an insane number but it appears to be true.


Nixon in China music: Act I, page 44

For the uninitiated, the meter, or 'time signature', tells the musician how to keep time while playing a piece. It tells the musician how many beats are in one measure of music, and what kind of note equals one beat. Time signatures are written like mathematical fractions at the start of each measure of music. Often one piece of music will have different time signatures, the concept being that a time signature continues until you see a new one.

The top number in the time signature denotes the number of beats in a measure (also known as a 'bar'). All this means is how high you count before you start over. If the number is a 3, you'd count 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. If it is a four, you count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. The top number can be pretty much any number you want.

Still with me? Good.

Now, the bottom number is the value of the note that constitutes "one" in your 1-2-3-4 count. Notes have values. They are Whole, Half, Quarter, Sixteenth, Thirty-second, Sixty-fourth.

So, the bottom number in a time signature can really only be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64.

The most common time signatures are 2/4, 3/4, 4/4. In each of these time signatures, the quarter note equals "one" when you count, because the bottom number is a 4. (When you divide a thing in 4, you get quarters - get it?)

And because 2/4 = two quarters, that means you count 2 beats per measure. 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.
A 3/4 time signature means you count 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and 4/4 means you count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

Thus, it takes two quarter notes (or equivalent: four eighth notes, perhaps) to fill up a measure of 2/4 time, three quarter notes to fill up a measure of 3/4 time, and four quarter notes to fill up a measure of 4/4 time.

Here are some popular songs in notable time signatures:

2/4 - Bad Moon on the Rise by CCR

3/4 - Piano Man by Billy Joel, House of the Rising Sun by the Animals are both in 3/4, as is Lithium by Nirvana

4/4 - most everything else is in 4/4. Rock Around the Clock, most 50's music, most Motown.

Now for some unusual time signatures:

12/8 Time - Sea of Love by Phil Phillips, and Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley.

11/4 - Hey Ya! by OutKast is sort of 11/4. It uses mixed six measure phrases of three 4/4 measures, a 2/4 measure, and two 4/4 measures. (I learned this on the internet!)

13/8 - Turn it on Again by Genesis. The verses and choruses are in 13/8. Other parts are in 8/8, and 5/8.

11/8 - Blockhead by Devo. Verses are in 11/8 time, choruses in 4/4.

10/4 - Everything In Its Right Place and Go to Sleep by Radiohead are both in 10/4

9/8 - Broken Toy by Keane. First and second verses are marked 9/8 (although choruses use 6/8 or either 3/4).

7/4 - There are a lot of examples of rock and it is one of my favorites, here are a few:
Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel
Spoonman by Soundgarden. Verses in 7/4.
Soul Love by David Bowie
I Was Brought To My Senses by Sting. Intro is in 4/4, but the rest is 7/4.
Times Like These by Foo Fighters. Primarily in 4/4 but the main riff of the song is played in 7/4.

7/8 - is very similar and has:
2+2=5 by Radiohead.
What Would I Want? by Animal Collective
Them Bones by Alice in Chains
Pushing Forward Back by Temple of the Dog

5/8 - Red by King Crimson.

5/4 - is a famous "alternative" time signature - here's why:
Take Five by Dave Brubeck Quartet.

which is a great comparison with a modern example:
15 Step by Radiohead.

And here's some more 5/4
Mission Impossible Theme by Lalo Schifrin.
Seven Days by Sting

Great snippet: I popped out to talk to some orchestra members on break and they were all saying, "I can't stop counting!"

The demands of Nixon in China are such that with so many time signature changes, you are constantly counting 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4.....Can we say, maddening?!

Course, if you find yourself unable to sleep one night, perhaps one can use the time changes to count sheep....
1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3......

~ Christopher Libby, Managing Director

1 Response to "Do You Have The Time?"

  1. Idony Said,

    I found your post in answer to "How can I stop counting time signature?" I was trying to nap and found myself noticing that the neighbor's bass line was in 7/8; then it switched to 8/8; which for some reason was worse than a dentist's drill. He failed to appreciate my dilemma, but somewhat huffily and repeatedly said that it was going to be off in a little while anyway.

    Am now listening to my Peter Gabriel Pandora station (nice mix of Fripp/Gabriel and some good ol' 4/4) and am happier. My daughter thinks I'm nuts.