I happened to be in the studio when one of my favorite drummers was tracking some parts, and I don’t recall if I was supposed to be helping produce or why I was there, but for some reason I butted in and said, “You just need to stick in an extra 2/4 measure.” Remarkably, he didn’t know what that meant. He told me to just play it for him once, so I did, and he immediately got it. It wasn’t a matter of capacity or ability, he was a drummer with incredible feel and never missed a beat. He just didn’t know how to count.
That’s happened to me often enough that I now recognize training and musicianship do not correlate. Still, learning the language of counting helps us communicate, so let’s talk about it. After all, it would have saved us maybe a minute of time and at $100 an hour that’s as much as it costs for a tall coffee!
When I started piano lessons at age five, I recall the only requirement was that I be able to count to 4. To play most music these days, you can get away with being able to count 4/4 time, and 6/8 time.
The basics are: the top number in a time signature means how many counts in a measure. The bottom number in a time signature means what kind of note (think a fraction of 1 over that number) gets one count.
The most common time signature of 4/4 time says that there are four counts to a measure, and a quarter (1/4) note gets one count. When counting 1-2-3-4, the accents are on 1 and 3, and the time signature has a duple feel to it.
- So a 2/4 measure means two counts to a measure, and a quarter note gets one count. Counting 1-2, the accent is on count one. This is essentially a half of a 4/4 bar.
In 6/8 time, there are six counts to a measure and an 8th note (1/8th) gets one count. Counting 1-2-3-4-5-6, you see the accent is on 1 and 4 and there is a triplet feel to this time signature. Think Indescribable.
- Similarly 9/8 time has nine counts to a measure and an 8th note gets one count. Counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, we still have a triplet feel, but it’s three groups of three, which is slightly different than a waltz. Count 1 is accented more than count 4 and 7. Think Jesu, Joy of Mans Desiring.
- A waltz in 3/4 time has three counts to a measure and a quarter (1/4) note gets one count. Counting 1-2-3, the accent is on count 1 and there is a slow triplet feel to this time signature, with each measure feeling consistent. Think Stronger.
Those are really all of the basic time signatures, but it’s worth it to dig deeper.