Monday Mailbag – Explaining Time Signatures

I am useless at explaining Cut Time.  In fact time signatures in general. I was trying to explain this to a student today and just kept going round and round in circles with the poor girl getting more and more confused. I tried to explain that the bottom number refers to what kind of beat and that that number is figured out by how many notes fit into a whole note.  Rarely have I been able to get the message across thoroughtly though. How do you explain time signatures like cut common and compound duple?

One of the principles I try to keep in mind is that I should teach students what they need to know to be successful at their level while ensuring that all information is accurate and will not be contradicted by future information. This especially applies in the area of rhythm and is one of the reasons that I try to avoid saying that a quarter note automatically means one beat, a half note equals two beats, etc. Instead, I introduce the note values to them relationally – i.e. a half note would be the value of two quarter notes put together, a dotted half note would be like three quarter notes put together, etc.

When I very first introduce time signatures to a young student, I don’t even use a lot of the terminology associated with them. Instead, I explain that music is placed on the page in an organized manner and the number at the beginning helps us understand what the pattern of beats is. For example, if the top number is a 4, we know that we should count in patterns of 4. This is the terminology that I use and write all the time in my students’ assignment books, “Count in patterns of 4 – 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,etc.” Same for 3/4 or 6/8 or 2/2.

If they are working with a compound time like 6/8, I tell them that it should feel like there are two big beats that are subdivided into three smaller beats each. If they are working with cut time, I might show them that the structure is the same as what they are used to with a 4/4 time signature, but the emphasis of the beats now is on two bigger beats, rather than four.

I want my students to understand these concepts, but it’s important to remember that understanding doesn’t usually come all at once. Help them understand as much as is necessary to be successful, then keep looking for ways to increase their understanding in the weeks to come. Eventually it will click!

Does anyone else have any suggestions on this? Teaching some of these more complex time signatures can be a challenge, so if anyone has devised some creative ways for helping students understand, I’d love to know about them!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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