Music in Theory #4 Understanding Time

This is the fourth post in a series of specific posts where I just talk about my passion for music theory, different exercises and things that I’ve thought up that may shed light on something or somethings that musicians are either struggling with or else it’s a completely new subject to them or opens a completely different door to them musically.
If I can inspire my fellow musicians as much as they inspire me, then I can die happy.
So here goes.
Lesson 4 in the aptly named: Music in Theory

Understanding Time


In a follow up to the last post I did that was all about music in 1959 I touched on the album Time Out by Dave Brubeck. For those of you who don’t know that album it’s a cool jazz/west coast Jazz album, and the first Brubeck released that experimented with unusual or uncommon time signatures. Inspired by time spent in Turkey as part of a state funded Eurasian tour, the album contains of pieces in meters like 5/4, 9/8 and 6/4.
You can’t really read the name Dave Brubeck and not immediately think “West coast Jazzy time lord” so I felt the need to break down the concept in my next Music in Theory post.
I’m not too sure what it is about time signatures that terrifies a lot of musicians, if it isn’t 4/4 it can’t boogie woogie or Rock n Roll, right?
It’s quite a generally misconstrued concept among beginner or untrained musicians, I’m quite sure I feared anything uneven around the time I first started studying in UCD but since then I’ve grasped more of an understanding and hopefully an easier way of explaining the concept of time in music.

Dave Brubeck


What are Time Signatures?


Time signatures in a nutshell are a type of notation that dictates the measurement and meter of one bar. They consist of two numbers, one on top of the other immediately after the Key Signature on the staff.
The number on the bottom dictates the unit of measurement (4 being a quarter note, 8 being an eighth note etc.) and the number on top tells you how many of those units make up a bar. So, take for example 3/4 is telling you a bar consists of 3 quarter notes.
Although usually uncommon, like the Key signature a time signature can change many times in a piece.

Simple Time & Compound Time

The main difference between Simple time & compound time is how the meters are “felt” each meter will have a specific pulse to it. In 4/4 that pulse can be said as “2 + 2” or like a soldier marching “left, right, left, right”. If the meter can be divided evenly in 2 it is said to be simple time.
All simple time signatures 2/4, 4/4, 8/4, 12/4 are divisible by two, the exception of which is 3/4 or ‘Waltz Time’. Waltz time is still regarded as simple time as it has an even feel of straight eighth notes and not a triplet feel. “1 and 2 and 3 and” which is different from compound time.

Compound time is where the pulse of the meter is measured or felt in triplets “1 and a 2 and a”. For example 6/8 will consist of a triplet feel “1 and a 2 and a” and consists of 6 eighth notes; 3/4 also consists of 6 eighth notes “1 and 2 and 3 and” but the pulses of both feel completely different. It would be incorrect, so to speak, to notate a 6/8 piece in 3/4, but it would not if it were noted as 2/4 and the triplets were labelled with the number 3 above the groupings.


Complex Time

Complex time, also known as asymmetric, odd, irregular, unusual, or unsquare time, is when the measurement of the meter cannot be equally divided in 2 or 3.
Instead, their pulses are broken down and usually felt with a combination of the two.
For example, 7/4 could be felt with a pulse of “2 + 2 + 3” or 11/8 can be felt with “3 + 3 + 3 + 2”, or any combination provided the beats match the number of the meter.

11/8 is an unusual one, like the example earlier given the difference between 3/4 and 6/8; I’ve come across a couple different variations of it in Jazz.
The “3 + 3 + 3+ 2” variation is a triplet feel; exactly like a 12/8 rhythm with one note missing, meaning in terms of quarter notes, it would be 32/3 quarter notes or 32/3/4. If we were to play 11/8 using straight eighth notes “1 and 2 and” instead of triplets, we get a rhythm of “2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 1”, which in terms of quarter notes would be 5 whole beats, and a half; 51/2 /4 but yet both variations consist of the exact same amount of eighth notes.

Though these can be difficult to feel or unusual for a musician to try and keep in time with, there are a few handy ways to keep in mind. Experimental Indian bass player Jayen Varma once broke down his style of playing odd time signatures as part of his TED Talk. By using a pattern of syllables, Jayen breaks down the rhythm into a simpler format for a musician to follow. The word Delhi has two syllables, Calcutta has three, therefore “Delhi, Delhi, Delhi, Calcutta” can be used to keep time in 9/8, “Calcutta, Calcutta, Calcutta, Delhi” can be used to keep time in 11/8 (32/3/4 variation)

Dave Brubeck features in the Japanese version of Poker, ‘Yugioh’. He can only be Summoned by clapping ‘Unsquare song’ and Highland dancing to the rhythm.

Along the lines of the last few lessons I’ve written, I decided to post this example of what an unsquare or odd time feel sounds like. This is part of a song I’m presently working on and is based on a simple 12 bar blues structure with the turnarounds on bars 8, and 12. The structure freely slips in and out of a 5/8 and 6/8 meter that have a “2 + 3” and “2 + 3 + 1” feel respectively.
The complete structure is:

|5/8 | 5/8 | 5/8 | 6/8 |
|5/8 | 5/8 | 5/8 | 5/8 |
|6/8 | 6/8 | 5/8 | 5/8 |

Brubeck in 12

I’ve heard the term Half Time and Double Time before, how do they work?

Ok so, we’ve got common time (4/4) covered where we have 4 quarter notes in a bar. Think for example if we have a standard 4/4 drum beat where the snare hits on the 2 and 4 (1 2 3 4); Half time is where the note values are doubled without changing tempo, allowing the song to take on a slower more relaxed pace. Whereas beat 1 would take up the space of 1 quarter note, in half time; it takes up 2 quarters.
This therefore means that the snare hits in our 4/4 beat have now moved to beat 3 (1 2 3 4). In jazz, the movement to half time or double time usually only effects the rhythm section, the chord changes retain the same value, if a chord is held for one bar of 4, it is still held for that 1 bar. However, if the bass was playing a quarter note swing with notes landing on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4 for example, it will have dropped to half its frequency, playing only on beats 1 and 3.

A really popular example of changing from regular time to half time is that Half time drop in the chorus of Aha’s ‘Take on me’. The snare hits on 2 and 4 for the majority of the song but at the “I’ll be gone” point the snare has shifted itself to beat 3 just to be groovy.

Double time employs the same logic in reverse and is common in a lot of jazz solo sections. Instead of slowing down the pace, Double time speeds up the feel, again without changing tempo or where the chord changes are. A quarter note’s value is halved to an 8th note. In terms of the 4/4 beat used in the last 2 examples, the snare hit would land on every ‘and’ following beats 1, 2, 3 and 4 (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +). And as for that swingin’ bass player; he’s now playing an 8th note swing and really making his money.


But aside all that are there other types of funky time feel? I came for the jazz. where’s the Jazz, man?
YES! Ok, now we can get into the real jazzy end of the whole time philosophy in music mumbo jumbo.


Dave Brubeck, head of the Timelord Council as seen on Dr.Who circa 1976

The musician, as the performer of a note so to speak, has the artistic option to not always play exactly, rigidly on the beat or “in the pocket” of the meter.
A note can be played exactly on the beat; where everything sounds rock solid, or a sort of tension can be applied by either pushing or pulling the rhythm by playing either just a little too fast, or falling behind a bit in terms of feel.

The sound of which kind of odd to explain using words what I mean by this but pushing the beat makes the music sound very on its toes rhythmically. A lot of jazz soloists when creating a bit of tension in their coloring of the music will push the beat ahead a bit just to give things a bit more friction.
I had to really look about for a pop music example of this and the best The Police’s ‘Hungry for you’. The song regularly jumps from regular time to double time but the feel aspect of it sounds like it’s in a rush somewhere.
(probably to send out an S.O.S hehehe)

Pulling the beat is the opposite where everything feels more relaxed; a great example of this is the likes of Jazz funk, specially from the early 70’s (check out the Headhunters version of ‘Watermelon man’) or like Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘Can’t hide love’ where the rhythm feels like it’s going toward the snare hits on beat 2 and 4 in a more lazy manner.
Pulling the beat becomes more extreme when you apply it to the offbeat like the drums in ‘Ticket to Ride’. The snare and tom hits on the offbeat of 3 and 4 are slightly different from each other; the tom hit is just a little bit more relaxed than playing directly on the ‘and’ of 4.


it goes like “Boom, Ka, B-boom, .. Ka.. Dom”

I’ve never really heard a drummer get that right. 😉


I hope you found this useful and as always, Thanks for reading and let me know in the comments if there is anything you want me to cover next time.


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