MIXED AND CHANGING METERS
In much of today’s contemporary music, a single time signature does not continue for an entire piece. In some works, the basic beat or underlying rhythm may remain steady while the number of counts per measure changes. In others, everything is up for grabs – the number of counts per bar and the speed of those counts. This is our focus for this WebRhythms lesson.
Pulling all of the information about time signatures together, we can set up a few rules:
RULE ONE – The upper number in the time signature tells you how many counts are included in a single measure.
RULE TWO – The bottom number in the time signature tells you which note value equals one of those counts.
RULE THREE – Two eighths always equal a quarter.
Now that we’ve got the rules, let’s take a quick look at each one.
The first rule is perhaps the easiest to apply. It simply states that if the upper number in the time signature is a “4”, then there will be four counts in each measure. To carry this further, the number “3” will signify three counts per bar; the number “7” means seven counts, and so on.
The second rule should pose no problem if you’ve been a regular reader of these lessons. For those of you who may have missed a lesson or two, here’s a quick review. In the time signature of 4-4, the upper number says there will be four counts in each measure. But, which note is going to equal the value of one count? The lower number answers this question and is in a type of code. The key to the code is:
1 = whole note
2 = half note
4 = quarter note
8 = eighth note
16 = sixteenth note
32 = thirty-second note
With this code, 4-4 time means that there will be the value of four quarter notes in each measure. In the time signature of 7-8, there will be the value of seven eighth notes in each measure. The meter of 11-16 will have the value of eleven sixteenth notes per bar, and so forth.
The last rule is the one that makes it all happen when playing music with mixed and changing meters. It is stated very simply, but has far reaching effects. If two eighths always equal a quarter, then two sixteenths always equal an eighth, two halves always equal a whole. This rule is applicable under any time signature and under any circumstances. Let’s see how to apply these rules to a passage using different meters.
Take a look at example 1. Here you see four measures, each with their own time signature, but all containing sixteenth notes. By looking at the counts below each note, you see that the sixteenths in each measure will be counted differently even though their speed will remain constant. In the first measure, the sixteenths divide each quarter note count into four parts and use the “1 e + a” syllables. In the second measure, since the eighth note gets the value of a count, the sixteenths divide the count into only two parts. For the 7-16 measure, the sixteenth note is the value of the count, so each sixteenth is counted as a number. Since the last measure is in 4-32, the thirty-second note is going to receive the value of a single count. Sixteenth notes are twice as long as thirty-seconds, and therefore get the value of two counts each.
I know that you may be thinking that there must be an easier way to perform this example. How about simply playing one measure of sixteenths in 4-4 time (that’s the easiest measure), and then follow that with 21 sixteenths in a row? Well, if you’re sure that all the sixteenths are being played at the same speed, then this little shortcut will work. But, it might not be the best way to approach the problem of mixed meters. Take a look at the next example and you’ll see why.
Example 2, while keeping the same pattern of time signatures as the first example, contains notes of different rhythmic values. To accurately perform a passage like this, it’s critical to keep track of the note values and their relationship to the measure. Some of the trickier aspects of this example are changing from the eighth to the dotted eighth when going from the first measure to the second, and keeping the relationship in the third measure. As you work this example out, notice that the speed of the eighth notes in the third measure should be the same speed as the sixteenths in the third bar. In other words, not only are two eighths always equal to a quarter as the rule states, but one eighth is always equal to any other eighth note.
While it may seem difficult to keep changing the speed of the counts in each measure while keeping the relationships of the notes steady, the extra effort is worth it. Passages like this are difficult to sight-read, and trying to come up with shortcuts like the one suggested in the first example is impossible when you’re reading for the first time. Once you work out a few problems like these with the proper counting, others become much easier to perform.
When working with this lesson, you might first try counting each measure without paying any attention to the note values inside the measure. In other words, count only the number syllables, making sure that any changes between quarter note, eighth or sixteenth note counts are accurate. Once you can comfortably count the number syllables, go inside each measure and “dissect” the internal rhythms.
Don’t be frustrated if you have some problems when starting out. This is a pretty advanced exercise, so take it slow and easy by working out a few measures at a time.