Time Signatures and Measures

Now that you have been exposed to notes and rests, you must piece them together to make rhythmical sentences. But in order to accomplish this, you must first learn about time signatures, which are also called meters. There are many time signatures used in music; however, most of this book will focus on 4/4, since rock is usually played in this meter.

Another name for 4/4 is common time. If you turn the radio on and flip through the stations, you will hear 4/4 used on most songs. No other time signature is so pervasive in music. Part of the reason for this is the symmetrical nature of 4/4: 2+2 is easy to dance or groove to.

All time signatures contain a top number and a bottom number. These numbers tell the musician two important things:

  • Number of beats in a measure

  • What note value equals one beat

You're probably asking yourself, “What's a beat, and what's a measure?” Most music is played in time; it has a pulse that, once started, continues until the composition or tune reaches its end. This pulse is the called the beat.

In written music, notes and rests are segmented into smaller compartments of time. These boxes of time are called measures or bars. In other words, notes and rests are contained within measures, and measure lines are used to mark each measure's borders. As you will see in Figure 2-10, measure lines—usually called bar lines—are simple vertical lines used to separate or partition music into “chunks” or “pieces” of time.

FIGURE 2-10: Two measures with bar line

You will notice in standard notation that there is no line dividing the two number fours of 4/4 time; the fours merely sit on top of one another. However, for educational purposes, temporarily accept 4/4 as a fraction.

All fractions have a top number, called a numerator, and a bottom number, called a denominator. The numerator tells you how many beats exist in a measure. Since there is a four in the numerator, you can say that there are four beats in each measure.

The denominator tells you what note value equals one beat. In order to find this, temporarily replace the numerator with a one. Now, you have 1/4, or a quarter. This tells you that the quarter note equals the beat. So what does 4/4 really mean? In this time signature, you have four beats in a measure and the quarter note represents (or equals) one beat.

Quarter and Eighth Notes

Quarter notes function as the pulse or beat in most of the music you will play in this book. In other words, the quarter note acts as the heartbeat of the music. When you place four quarter notes into a measure of 4/4, it is counted like Figure 2-11.

Each quarter note represents a downbeat. In 4/4, downbeats equal the numbers one, two, three, and four. If you divide quarter notes into eighth notes, you will have eight of them per measure. Figure 2-12 shows you one measure of eighth notes.

In Figure 2-12, the beat was divided into two parts. It should be counted “one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and.” “Ands” are called upbeats. Upbeats represent the second half of a beat. Remember, for each note, there is a corresponding rest. In Figure 2-17, you'll get a chance to play eighth notes with eighth rests.

FIGURE 2-11: Four quarter notes

FIGURE 2-12: One measure of eighth notes

Keeping Time and Counting Out Loud

One of the most important facets of music is timekeeping. Without a good internal clock, you will have limited ability to play with other musicians. Music exists in time and space. Time refers to the pulse of the music, while space refers to the rhythmical components (notes and rests) that exist within a time span.

All musicians should focus on timekeeping, but this is especially true of drummers, since you lay down the groove of the music. One of the best ways to improve your time is to count beats out loud. Professionals do not count out loud when they perform; however, counting is crucial in the practice room, especially for beginners. Counting will help you make sense of the rhythms you are reading.

As previously stated, when you see four quarter notes, you should count the downbeats 1, 2, 3, 4. Counting divisions and subdivisions is also helpful. For instance, you know that eighth notes are counted: one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and. Sixteenth notes are counted using the syllables: one-e-and-ah, two-e-and-ah, three-e-and-ah, four-e-and-ah. See Figure 2-13 for an illustration of this.

If you combine sixteenth notes and eighth notes, the rhythms become more elaborate. Moreover, if you use sixteenth rests, the rhythms really become knotty and difficult to play. When using these types of rests, you must be very diligent in your counting. Figure 2-14 shows you some common rhythmical patterns that use eighth note and sixteenth note combinations (examples A and B). This figure also shows you sixteenth note and sixteenth rest combinations (examples C, D, E, and F).

FIGURE 2-13: Counting sixteenth notes

FIGURE 2-14: Eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and sixteenth rests

  1. Home
  2. Rock Drums
  3. Reading Music
  4. Time Signatures and Measures
Visit other About.com sites: