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Time signatures: what they are and why they’re cool

The time signature lives right at the beginning of every song.

You know. That thing that looks like a fraction.

As it turns out, there’s a lot to say about this thing. Check out the Wikipedia article.

Or not.


What’s it for?

In the simplest terms, the time signature tells you two things:


  • how many beats are in a bar, and
  • what those beats are worth


By “worth”, I mean quarter-notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc.

So a time signature of 4/4 means that there are 4 beats in the bar (the first number) and each beat is worth a quarter note (the second number). 3/8 means that there are three beats in the bar, and each beat is worth an eighth note.


The second number

The first number can be anything (though it doesn’t usually go above 11). The second number points to a note value. The possibilities for this number and what it corresponds to are:


  • 1 – whole-note (rare)
  • 2 – half-note
  • 4 – quarter-note
  • 8 – eighth-note
  • 16 – sixteenth-note
  • 32 – thirty-second-note (rare)


Getting interesting

But all that is just background.

Time signatures get interesting when you realize that there’s more to life than 4/4 and ¾ These get the most use by far, but there’s a lot more to consider.

I’ve defined the possibilities for the second number. You’ll notice they’re all multiples of two. Except for the whole note.

The first number can combine twos and threes. This can produce crazy looking time signatures, but that’s not what makes a song interesting.

What makes a song interesting, what creates its unique feel, is how you put the twos and threes together.


4/4 can get boring

Let me explain.

If you play in 4/4 all the time, it probably means you’re emphasizing the same beats every song.: the first beat and the third beat, or the second beat and the fourth beat.

Now take a simple time signature like 5/4. 5/4 is a combination of two and three. It’s either 2 + 3, or 3 + 2.

So what, you say?



Well, strum a chord in 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 3.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.30.47 AM


Now strum a chord and 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 4.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.32.26 AM


Two completely different feels in one time signature.


Possibilities. Lots.

Imagine emphasizing beat 1 and beat 3 in the verse, and beat 1 and beat 4 in the chorus. Or 4/4 in the verse, and 5/4 in the chorus. Or maybe just use 5/4 in the bridge…

The point is, with one simple time signature, a whole bunch of possibilities open up. Why not take advantage of that?



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Becoming a better rhythm player: triplets and strumming

Two years ago, I started this blog with a series on songwriting. I finished fifteen posts, and then went careening off into other areas of personal interest. Some of it, I hope, was of interest to readers. Some of it was me clarifying my own process of music-making.



I ended the series with posts about rhythm, but I didn’t get past quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Here’s the last post in that series.

How to make chord progressions a pro would love, Part 15: Rhythm III – Strumming


So I didn’t get to triplets. Too bad, because they’re kind of awesome.


Here’s what they look like, and how to count them.



As with eighth-notes, you need to keep a steady beat and distribute the notes evenly over that beat.

Use a metronome to get this right. Most metronomes can play eighth-notes and triplets while accenting the downbeat. This is really useful for hearing what I mean by “distribute the notes evenly over that beat.”


Eighth-note strumming

Strumming triplets turns out to be more challenging than strumming quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Here’s why.

With eighth-notes, you naturally use an up-and-down strumming motion, hitting the downbeat on the down-stroke (square bracket symbol) and the upbeat on the upstroke (wedge symbol).

eighth notes strum


It feels pretty natural. After all, you have to bring your arm up after the down-stroke in preparation for the next down-stroke. Might as well hit the strings as you do.


Triplet strumming

But with triplets, everything changes. If you use an up-and-down strumming motion, you wind up using an upstroke on every second down-beat. In the following example, that means on beats 2 and 4. Like this:

triplets strum


This means that you don’t get to use gravity to emphasize those downbeats where you use an upstroke. This feels weird, and it’s why some people use down-strokes exclusively when strumming triplets.

But practice it anyway. If you do, you’ll make your upstrokes as strong as your down-strokes. This will make you a more flexible and interesting rhythm player. It will also make people want to play with you more.

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Songwriting and sonic texture

I’ve been talking a lot about ambient/textural music and sound in the last number of weeks, but how does all this fit into song-writing?

Song-writing isn’t just about chords, melody, and words. Conceptually, it starts there, usually with words that seem to work only if music is supporting them. And that music usually has some relation to the words. Or it should, even if it’s only minor key for sad song, major key for happy song.



Here’s some other conventional material that can be used to support words:


  • A guitar solo (with or without the rest of the band) to illustrate loneliness
  • Arpeggiated chords to illustrate a lighter mood
  • Power chords to illustrate confidence or aggression
  • Silence to build tension


This list can get pretty long, and of course any of these can illustrate something other than what I’ve indicated here. But each choice should have some sort of reason for being there. Music should support the story of the words somehow, otherwise what’s the point of including it?

(At this point, it’s not a bad idea to list all the musical ideas, techniques, etc. that you can think of, and then try to relate them to lyrics that you’ve written).


Ambient experiment

Ambient sound can function as support for lyrics, too. Using the guitar, you can create sound that illustrates thunder, wind, industrial sound, etc.

But can you sing over these kinds of sounds? Of course, you don’t have to; they can just be used for effect.

But it’s fun to try.

As an experiment, take a melody from a song you know (or one you’ve written), create and loop an ambient sound, and sing that melody with the sound. Here’s a couple of ideas for ambient sound:


  • Delay pedal – set a delay of .5 second with maximum feedback; play long, single notes in the same key as the melody until you get a dense weave of notes.
  • Distortion – maximum distortion; rub or scrape the strings; don’t try to get any sort of conventional harmonic sound; just think noise.


These sounds can be disorienting to sing over. But give it a try. It usually sparks ideas, and it’s not like you have to use it as part of a song. Although you might want to.


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Writing music without the guitar

If you’re a guitar player, and you write music with the guitar, you will only be able to write what you’ve already written.

Playing the guitar is a set of learned muscular responses. It’s a hard instrument to play, and it’s necessary to repeat the same movements over and over when learning it. So when you pick it up, your body will naturally make those movements.

In fact, those learned movements are the only movements that are possible. If you want to add to what you can do on the guitar, you have to repeat a different movement on the guitar a bunch of times.

You can only write what your body is able to do.


What to do?

So how do you write music if the only thing you know is the guitar?

Sit in a comfortable chair with a notebook. Leave the guitar in another room. Draw some vertical lines until you have 8 empty bars.

Now think of how much activity you want in each bar.

Maybe there’s a chord on the second beat and the rest of the bar is empty. Maybe there’s a strumming rhythm that goes through the whole bar. How does the sparseness of the first approach make you feel? What does the busyness of the second approach do for you?

While the song may have chords, that doesn’t mean that it excludes electronic sounds, environmental sounds, etc. That doesn’t mean that the chords are playing all the time. Are there any other sounds, instrumental or otherwise, that you think would work?

After you’ve filled the 8 bars (without picking up the guitar), play what you’ve written. Revise as necessary. Working this way, you often come up with stuff you don’t normally write.



You can learn new chords, or you can change the sound of the chords you already know. Try playing a chord that you know, and take one of your fingers off the fretboard.

With an open string C chord, you need three fingers. Take one finger off the fretboard. Strum, then arpeggiate. Do this for each finger you take off. See if you can write an entire song by manipulating that one chord.

Learn a new chord, and go through the same process.

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Beyond notes and rhythms

What do you think about when you write music? What are you trying to do?

In popular music it usually comes down to notes and rhythms. But there are other things to consider: timbre, articulation, register, density, dynamics. If we take these things into consideration when we write, our writing becomes deeper.



This comes down to awareness.

It doesn’t mean that you have to structure every last thing in a piece. But being aware of when it wants to get loud, where the timbre changes, how many instruments are playing, and what range the notes are in makes your connection to the piece deeper. It gives you more material to work with.

Just notice what you’re doing.



As a simple example, you may want to connect the first minute of the piece with the third minute by using the same timbre. First minute – distorted guitar; second minute – clean guitar; third minute – distorted guitar. This kind of thing forges connections in the mind of the listener.

And of course, this can be used in popular music as easily as in avant-garde music. Just connect verses to verses, choruses to choruses, or verses to choruses by considering things beyond notes and rhythms


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Algorithmic songwriting

Try applying algorithm to chord progressions if you feel like you can’t find something new.

This can be really simple or really complex.



Use every third chord in the key.

If you’re in the key of C…


Cmaj       Dmin       Emin      Fmaj       Gmaj       Amin        Bdim


…every third chord would be.


Cmaj      Emin      Gmaj      Bdim       Dmin       Fmaj      Amin       Cmaj


There might be a couple of moves in there that you like, moves you wouldn’t have thought of without using this technique.


A little less simple

Two rules: Use every third chord in the key; make every fourth chord  a seventh chord.


Cmaj     Emin     Gmaj     Bdim7     Dmin      Fmaj     Amin7    Cmaj    Emin     Gmaj7            Bdim      Dmin     Fmaj7      Amin7      Cmaj   etc


Less simple still

Three rules: Use every third chord; every fourth chord is a seventh chord; change key every fifth chord. I’m changing keys by going around the circle of 4ths: Cmaj – Fmaj – Bbmaj – Ebmaj.


Cmaj     Emin     Gmaj     Bdim7    Fmaj      Amin      Cmaj7     Edim     Bbmaj      Dmin7       Fmaj Adim    Ebmaj7   Gmin   Bbmaj    etc.


I find this a bit limiting since it basically just plays the same four-chord progression in a different key. Let’s try making every fifth chord the I chord in the new key and move by thirds in that key. The keys are now Cmaj – Dmin – Emin – Fmaj


Cmaj     Emin     Gmaj     Bdim7     Dmin     Fmaj    Amaj   C#dim7    Emin   Gmaj   Bdom7       Dmin   Fmaj7    Amin7    Cmaj    etc.


These are just off the top of my head. They aren’t designed to be earth-shattering; they’re just for teasing out sounds that you may not have discovered by doing things the way you normally do them.

These ideas can be extended. For example, alternate moving the chords by a third and then by a fourth (i.e. Cmaj to Emin is a third; Emin to Amin is a fourth, etc.)  Notice that I’m staying in the key of C.


Cmaj     Emin      Amin     Cmaj     Fmaj     Amin     Dmin     Fmaj     Bdim      Dmin


With this technique, you get chords repeating themselves more often.

The basic idea here is to think of something to change, and then make that change at a regular time-interval (every third chord; every sixth beat, etc).

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