#1July 19th, 2010 · 07:07 PM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Lesson 17: Time Signatures and Lyrics
A time signature defines the number of beats in a measure (or bar) in a song, it is written as two numbers, one on top of the other, which define the number of notes in a measure and the duration of those notes. For example, a 6/4 time signature means that each measure consists of 6 quarter notes; the top number is the number of notes, 6, the bottom number is the duration of those notes, 1/4. We call each of the 6 notes in the measure a beat and in this time signature each beat is a quarter note in duration.

We also tend to classify beats in two ways: downbeats and upbeats. Downbeats are the emphasized beats whereas upbeats are the beats between downbeats. Different time signatures "punctuate" beats differently, we'll see how in a minute.

There are 2 main types of time signatures (or meters):

Simple meter: Beats can be broken down into duples (two notes). Examples of this meter are 3/4, 4/4 (or common time), 2/4, 2/2. This is a bit hard to illustrate without music, you can check this out for a good explanation though (http://www.musictheory.halifax.ns.ca/13ts.html). You count this type of meter as (the downbeats are in bold, upbeats in italics. Notice the duple breakdown):

"one and two and three and four and"

Compound meter: Beats get broken down into triples. Examples of this meter are 6/8, 9/4, 12/8, 9/8, etc. You count compound meter as:

"one and a two and a three and a four and a"

Hybrid meter is also worth a mention. Hybrid meters combine simple and compound times in a single measure. The time signatures are something like 5/4 or 7/8. You can hear hybrid time in Pink Floyd's "Money" which contains a section in 7/8 or Sam Bush's "Laps in Seven" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i81TtlaNkf8, Sam Bush actually discusses the meter first). A 7/8 time signature might be counted as:

"one and two and three and four and five and a six and a seven and a"


"one and a two and a three and a four and five and six and seven and"

You may wonder at the difference between two seemingly equivalent time signatures. For example, 4/4 and 2/2 both tell us that the duration of a whole measure is a whole note (4 quarter notes or 2 half notes) so what's the difference? The main differences are how the rhythm gets "punctuated" and the overall speed of the song.

In 4/4, the measure has 2 downbeats and 2 upbeats whereas in 2/2, a measure only gets one upbeat and one downbeat. 2/2 also happens to be more convenient for writing faster songs since the speed of each note is defined relative to the half note instead of the quarter. This prevents the composer from having to use fast notes (32nd notes and such) and so write clearer music.

Also worth mentioning is syncopation. In syncopated rhythms, the down and upbeats are swapped so the emphasis is placed on the upbeats instead of the downbeats. This is popular in ska and jazz.

Now back to lyrics.

Lyrics exist as part of the song and as such are subject to the laws imposed by the meter. Lyrics that fall on downbeats will receive emphasis compared to those on upbeats. Because of this you may want to avoid separating words over downbeats, otherwise the second syllable gets the greater emphasis. In fact, sometimes it pays to deconstruct a line into shorter ones that fall between downbeats.

Lyrics are not independent of music so they need to be written with consideration for how they'll sound, not just read. One important thing to know before written lyrics is the time signature for which they are intended as this will define the length of your lines and the number of downbeats in them. It can be difficult and awkward to adapt lyrics written for simple time to compound time (and even harder for hybrid time) because the flow of the song changes too much.

That about covers it for the musical side of lyrics, next time we'll try and have a look at the poetic side.
#2April 16th, 2011 · 07:55 PM
5 threads
24 posts
United Kingdom
I don't often count the sub-beats in hybrid times - keeping track of the numbered beats is usually hard enough.

A good pair to contrast is the 5/4 of "Take 5"
One two three four five
(group of 3, then of 2)

versus the 10/8 of the "Mission Impossible" theme
One two three four five six se'n eight nine ten

(When counting seven, I strongly recommend you get in the habit of saying "sen", otherwise the extra syllable puts you off.)
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