Do you have some chords or progression for a song idea, but want to figure out a rhythm and timing that will work to capture the mood of what you’re imagining or back up the timing of your instruments or vocals?
Just like the chords in a progression provide the harmonic backdrop to a tune, a song’s time signature can play a major role in defining the feel of a progression, and help reinforce the rhythm of your instruments and meter of your vocal delivery.
You might already have a basic understanding of common time signatures and how they generally sound (like 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, or 6/8) – but if not, skip to this handy guide near the end of this article.
Sometimes it’s not so clear why you might use some time signatures over others. If you’re happy with experimenting in 4/4, and haven’t had reason to move outside this comfort zone — then we’ll discuss two examples, “Hey Ya!” by Outkast, and two versions of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that might show you how exploring some new time signatures can freshen up your sound when you’re creating music.
If you’re away from your instrument, we’ll also show you some other examples you can listen to now or any time, and then whenever you’re ready to give it a go, we’ll show you which courses and popular songs you can learn to play different time signatures on with Melodics.
Is “Hey Ya!” in 2/4, 4/4 or 11/4?
Separating some time signatures from genres that stereotypically use them can be tough. For instance, 2/4 is really common in bluegrass, folk or punk – but outside of these genres, our ears aren’t really trained to recognise them so easily.
Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya!’ is a really interesting example as it’s rooted in hip hop, pop soul and funk. It sounds like a 4/4 but has the in-your-face movement and momentum of 2/4 phrasing…
Why? It secretly has a single measure of 2/4 in it.
When counting along to the beat, count: three measures of 4/4, one of 2/4, then two more of 4/4 (or 4+4+4+2+4+4). If you add these all up, that’s 22 beats spread over two bars — hence why some people say “Hey Ya!” is in 11/4. But imagine reading 1 bar of music without a bar line for 11 whole beats 😢 — counting by 4+4+4+2+4+4 is much more natural, and the single 2-beat bar of 2/4 really captures the “lively” and “pushy” spirit of the song.
If you’re unsure what the difference that one bar of 2/4 makes (in an otherwise 4/4 song), check out this video of ‘Hey Ya!’ reimagined as a straight 4/4 beat. You’ll be able to hear the important role time signatures play in backing up the timing of vocal melodies or instrumentation.
In 4/4, ‘Hey Ya!’ sounds a little bit off — HINT: listen to the drum snare vs the vocal timing.
As the final word in each line of the vocals is delivered, the rhythm progression feels like it hasn’t quite finished yet, and still needs a couple more bars before it’s ready for a turnaround. It’s missing a snare!
But (thankfully) in the original 2/4 version, the drums and punchy vocals are perfectly in step at the end of each line, helping to drive home the rhythm at the same punchy pace and timing of the vocal delivery we all know and love.
Use time signatures to set the “mood”
For a great example of how extra beats in different time signatures can impart different moods in songs, compare these two different versions of the hit song “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
The original is written and played by the Beatles in 4/4, but Joe Cocker’s iconic cover totally reinterprets it in 6/8.
With more space after each vocal line for the chord progression to play, a much more epic, pausing, and melancholy feel is created — aided also by the slower overall tempo, and playing it in a different key of course ;). Such is the power time signatures hold!
Time Signatures Explained
A time signature is often expressed by two numbers (like a fraction) which gives you a rough rhythmical overview. The top number indicates how many “beats” are in each “bar” of a piece of music. The bottom number indicates the “note value” or “subdivision” of each beat.
The beat is often described as the main rhythm listeners might tap their toes to when listening to music, or the “1,2,3,4” that a musician counts while performing. It’s the basic unit of time which keeps pulsing and repeating throughout a piece of music.
Also called subdivisions, a note value indicates how long a particular beat (or note) is relative to the length of the whole bar.
For common time signatures, note values tend to be described as whole (1/1), half (1/2), quarter (1/4) or eighth (1/8) notes.
Tying it all together
So now you have an overview of counting beats (numerator) and each beat’s note values subdividing that beat (denominator), you might be a little more comfortable with why we describe common time signatures as we do – like 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, or 6/8.
Now it’s time to put knowledge to real-world context — have a listen to some of the iconic songs in their time signatures below and practice counting out the number of beats per bar in time to the music.
2/4 — Two beats per bar, one 1/4 note per beat
3/4 — Three beats per bar, one 1/4 note per beat
6/8 — Six beats per bar, one 1/8 note per beat
3/4 and 6/8 are almost twins. Depending on your tempo and how you like to count things, it can make more sense to notate and count a song in groups of six eighth notes (6/8), or you might be more comfortable just counting 3 quarter notes (3/4) over the same track. How would you count these songs?
- Piano Man Billy Joel
- Manic Depression Jimi Hendrix
- Everybody Hurts R.E.M.
- Kiss from a Rose Seal
- We are the Champions Queen
- Hallelujah Leonard Cohen
- Fallin’ Alicia Keys
4/4 — Four beats per bar, one 1/4 note per beat
Play with time
If you’re interested in getting to know the basics of time signatures, try out Melodics’ course for drums on ‘Exploring Time Signatures‘, or ‘Seeing Subdivisions‘ for finger drumming on pads. You’ll learn about note lengths, and how time signatures can work in contemporary music.