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evan pollack

Reading Rhythm—Part II

A Series of Articles Designed to Take the Fear
Out of Reading Drum Music

By Evan Pollack

It’s Time for the Time Signature

In Part One of this series, we concentrated on five terms that describe the landscape of the printed music page. We talked about notes, which are pictures of musical sounds. We talked about the staff and the clef, two items which provide us with a way to organize those notes. Finally, we talked about grouping the notes into easy to read boxes called measures.

Wait. That’s only four terms. What are we missing? We need to include the set of numbers that shows up at the beginning of every musical piece - the time signature.

Many people find the concept of the time signature confusing. What do the numbers really mean? How does the time signature really work? In this article, we’re going to help you make sense of it.

The DNA of the Time Signature

Let’s look at the world’s most common time signature.

Please note that there are two numbers, one on top and one on the bottom. It may look like a fraction but it’s not. That’s just how it appears when it’s placed on the staff.

The top number tells you what to count up to in every measure.

The bottom number is the code name for our reference note—the type of note that rings out every time we count one, two, three, four, etc.

In the time signature that we’re using today, we see that the top number is 4. That simply means to count up to four in every measure.

Our time signature’s bottom number is also a four. That bottom number is the code name used to represent quarter notes. Every time you see a quarter note, you count evenly one followed by two, followed by three followed by four.

It’s the unique mix of the time signature’s top and bottom number that gives the music its specific feel.

The numbers can change on both the top and bottom number. In addition, the time signature can change in various sections of a piece. In future articles, we’ll address those issues. For now, let’s keep it simple. We’ll keep the time signature the same throughout all of our musical examples.

Look, Listen and Play

Can you learn to ride a bicycle by reading a manual? No. You’ve got to experience the ride. Can you learn the effects of the time signature by just reading about it? I don’t think so. You’ve got to experience it.

Take a look at the following example.

Example #1

The shape of the note tells us how long the note will ring out.

We are using quarter notes in this example.

The top number of the time signature tells us to count up to four in every measure. Our bottom number of the time signature confirms that we are using quarter notes as our reference note.

Listen to the example and notice the sound of my voice as I count and play along with the excerpt.

Can you hear that I’m counting with the length of the note in mind? Quarter notes ring out a little. You can hear it in my voice.

Now, try this example with me. Let my voice guide you. If you count with me, you will feel the length of the quarter note, too!

Example # 2

Listen to the same example with a guitar track added. The guitar is playing quarter notes. The guitar notes ring. I want my interpretation of quarter notes on the snare drum to match the interpretation of the guitar notes being played.

Please count and play along with me now. You want your quarter notes to ring just like the guitar chords.

Example # 3

Let’s try this one more time with the guitar and drums. This time, I’m going to let go of the bicycle, so to speak, and let you take over the counting. This example will have four measures of quarter notes played on guitar and snare. We’ll count and play together. However, my voice will drop out after two measures. You keep counting and playing! See if you can lock in to the sound and feel of the notes.

You Did It!

Congratulations! You have just tackled the time signature. You learned that the top number tells you what to count up to in every measure. You also learned that the bottom number tells you what type of note you are going to be feeling as you count. Let the time signature be the first place you look when you read music. It will help you organize every measure so you can feel every measure.

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