Progression: Music Theory 107 – Time Signatures and Subdivisions

- Posted December 15th, 2017 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

Tuberz here with my seventh article in the realm of music theory, and how you can take theory principles and apply them to your own jams. I’ve just returned from a hecking good, heaps awesome trip to Finland for a research conference, and Japan for… well… Japan. I guess. This gave me lots of time to organize my thoughts on this topic. Last month we covered the idea of secondary dominant chords, and other functional chords for pivoting into other keys and tonal areas. By this point, my articles may seem more like science fiction novels with a grounding in theoretical physics, so I think it may be wise to peruse some of my other articles to help bring you up to speed. This article is going to cover my favourite topic: Time signatures. We’ll talk about some other cool rhythmic ideas as well.

Let’s jam.

Do you like pay people for reference photos of sheet music with weird stuff on it or are you just resourceful?

What is a Time Signature?

A time signature is a way of counting the number of beats in a bar and the emphasis on those beats. A time signature is generally written with two values, the number of beats and the beat value. This is written like a fraction – which explains genres like Math Rock far too well. The beat value will be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc. This value is indeed doubling each time, which means that when we read it as a fraction, the amount of time the beat takes up is halved. An 8th beat takes up half the space of a 4th beat… and a quarter of a space of the 2nd beat. You feel me? Some of you may know these as Crotchets and Quavers and Minims and the like.

The number above this value just tells you how many beats of this value are in each bar. For example, 4/4 would be four quarter notes to a bar, 7/8 would be seven eighth notes to a bar, 15/16 would be fifteen sixteenth notes to a bar. This being said, this actually provides more questions than answers, and I’ll explain why.

Beat Subdivisions

The time signature 3/4 has three quarter notes in it. The time signature 6/8 has six eighth notes in it. 6/8 = 3/4 so therefore they must be the same right? Wrong. Here’s why. 3/4 is counted like 3 beats of two eighth note pulses (Yes I know that’s strange, I will provide a diagram to assist afterwards). 6/8 is counted like two beats of three eighth note pulses. The image below shows which eighth notes (and subsequently quarter notes) that the accents fall on.

In this image, the RED lines are the accented lines and the GREEN lines are the non accented lines or off-beats.

6/8 and 3/4 fit the same number of beats, but they sound very different in terms of accentuation. In the time signature of 3/4, by placing notes on the strong beats of 6/8 you can create a contrasting effect called a Hemiola. This bar of music will stand out because of how it changes the accentuation of beats from what we are used to. Now… I have a particular way of thinking about beat subdivisions that I haven’t heard many people talk about, so here’s my take on it.


That’s my honest opinion based on all years of playing about with weird, crazy time signatures. You can break ANY time signature down in components of 2s and 3s. We’ll start simple and work our way up, okay? In 4/4 (the most common time signature) you can see it as two groups of two quarter note beats, however be converting it to eighth notes we end up with 8/8. 8/8 can be two things. It can be four groups of two eighth notes, or it can be any variation upon two groups of three eighth notes and one group of two eighth notes. 3+3+2=8 (wow there’s even math in this).

What about a less straight forward time signature? 7/8. Still quite a popular time signature. 7/8 can only be broken down into two groups of two eighth notes and one group of three eighth notes. 3+2+2=7. Now this could be arranged as 3, 2, 2… or this could be arranged as 2, 3, 2. My favourite subdivision of 7/8 is 2, 2, 3. This is because the last beat on the group of three sounds like a stumble tacked onto the end of 6/8. I love it because it sounds awkward and can be a great way of delivering a sense of uncertainty to your listener.

Now for a more tricky one. 11/8. This looks daunting but when you look at the subdivisions that make up its components it’s a much less stressful task. The trick is creating eleven by just adding twos and threes together. For example: 2+2+3+2+2=11. Or you could go 3+3+3+2=11. These are all great examples of beat subdivisions in 11/8. The unfortunate thing is that this indeed provides more questions than answers. The big question being…

So How Do I Actually Use These Subdivisions To Write Music?

There’s never just one way to do anything, but I will share my personal process with you. Lets say I’m working in 11/8 and I’m using the first example subdivision of 2+2+3+2+2=11. I like to write riffs before melodies and the like when I’m working in a weird time signature. Melodies can flow irrespective of accentuation of beats, however the riff should always highlight these accents in my personal opinion. I think of it like puzzle pieces. There are a number of possibilities that could fit into a subdivision of two eighth notes, and there are a number of possibilities that could fit into a subdivision of three eighth notes. I like to work these small fragments out and then piece them together like the following image showcases.

I’ve bracketed off each of the subdivision groups so you can literally see how I’ve built this passage of music

Something that I really liked about this subdivision was that it was palindromic. 2, 2, 3, 2, 2. I wanted to mimic that in the rhythmic and somewhat in the pitch, but felt that the final step up from an Eb to an F into the repeat would give it a bit more of a sense of flow. Not necessarily what you need to do, but I thought it gave this passage a sense of unravelling and then tying itself back up… kind of like a yoyo. This passage of music is a yoyo in 11/8.

I hope that this has provided a good introduction to the world of time signatures, making absurdist fractions seem less concerning and like a much more tackle-able task. Thanks for reading through another wall of text where I ramble about music theory and other nerdy stuff. I’m excited to hear how some of you readers approach these time signatures in your own work (using the D00 command in Famitracker or the H00 command in LSDJ). Once again, if you have questions, recommendations for topics, or even just want to share what you’ve learned, get in touch with me at tuberzmcgee (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m always happy to listen/read/help out. Tune in next month for more words and malarkey covering the topic of additional harmonic tricks that you can use to pivot into other seemingly unrelated chords.



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