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Time Signature

Text by: Amy Carpenter

A packed auditorium hums in quiet expectation before a performance of Bye Bye Birdie. The pit orchestra tunes in an excited cacophony but hushes its cackling as the conductor enters the pit. He raises his baton, and the musicians join in on a jaunty overture.

After the overture, the actors enter the stage and deliver their lines perfectly, drawing raucous laughter from the audience. The performance is going well - until the actress playing the part of Rose Alvarez opens her mouth to sing "An English Teacher." At first, she sing-speaks her musical lines, so no one really notices anything wrong. But then she launches into what is supposed to be the rhythmical, main section of the song. Her voice flits on the melody, her words pronounced clearly, but the music feels disjointed to the audience. In fact, the music feels extremely disjointed to the orchestra. The conductor struggles to keep his orchestra intact while simultaneously attempting to follow the musically careening actress. Finally, he gives up and lets the pianist, who knows all too well from previous rehearsals how bad this actress's timing is, race to keep up. At the end of the number, the audience claps in uncomfortable politeness, and the pit musicians slump in their seats with one collective, relieved sigh.

This is what happens when music lacks timing.

To the layman, music is about melody and its accompaniment. But a musician knows that music tells a story, and that story is dictated by timing, or rhythm. Without timing, music becomes nothing but a mess of notes, like the tuning of an orchestra before a show. The singer might just as well be talking if she has no timing, and the listener becomes lost without the binding glue of timing. Timing is everything.

When a musician plays a piece of music, one of the first things he looks at is the time signature. A time signature looks like a fraction without the line. The top and bottom numbers have completely different meanings, however. The top number indicates how many beats there are in a measure or bar (a measure/bar is the space between vertical lines on a sheet of music). The bottom number indicates what note value (quarter note, eighth note, etc.) will receive each individual beat.

There are many time signatures used in music, but the most basic are called "simple" time signatures:

When a musician sees this time signature, he knows that each measure will have four beats, with a quarter note getting each beat (count 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4). 4/4 time is used often in modern music, as well as in classical music.
A 2/4 time signature tells the musician that each measure will have only two beats, with a quarter note getting each individual beat (count 1 2, 1 2). The 2/4 time signature is used for brisk marches and other strong beats.
This time signature indicates 3 beats per measure, with the quarter note again getting each beat (count 1 2 3, 1 2 3). The waltz is in 3/4 time. Because of the lilting, rocking feel of the three-beat, lullabies (such as Braham's Lullaby) are often in 3/4 time.

Once the musician knows which time signature the music is set in, he also looks at tempo markings (tempo means "time" in Italian). These markings are found over the top left of the music staff at the beginning of a piece, but composers also put them within the music to indicate changes in tempo. Classical composers usually use Italian phrases to indicate the tempo of the piece — for example, allegro (fast), largo (very slow), and moderato (moderate, or medium). Editors and modern composers clarify tempo markings (or omit them altogether) using a metronome marking, for example:

=100 (100 beats [quarter notes] per minute)

If a musician ignores tempo markings, the entire mood of the piece changes. Ignoring tempo markings can also change the phrasing of the music, distorting the story and often making the music stale.

Rubato is a special tempo marking which is often misunderstood even by trained musicians. Rubato is an Italian word meaning "stolen." In music, sometimes time is "stolen" from one note and given to another. It is a departure from the strict inner beat of the music but is essential for the mood of a song. For example, in the sixth measure of Claude Debussy's "Arabesque no. 1," the music launches into a falling cascade of notes. These notes begin slow, like the start of a waterfall, and accelerate as they fall, decelerating as they reach the bottom of the cascade. In this rubato tempo, the fast notes "steal" some time from the slower notes. In the end, no time is truly lost, and the beat is kept, but the rubato notes give the illusion of rising, falling, and landing. If the musician loses the original beat of the music, the rubato becomes a simple acceleration and abrupt deceleration. The beautiful imagery of a cascading waterfall is lost. Again, timing is everything.

Just as timing is integral to music, timing is also integral to life. We are like the singing actress on stage, or the supporting musicians in the pit orchestra. We follow the silent vibrations of the beating earth, our lives keeping time with the passing of seasons and the ticking of the metronomic clock. Most of life is spent following the ordinary, 4/4 common time of life, but sometimes, the composition of our life changes. We march resolutely to the 2/4 time of robotic monotony or dance to the 3/4 time of romance. We rock our newborn infants to the hypnotic, gentle, 3/4 beat of a lullaby or fall and rise in the rubato tempo of tumbling adversity. If we are like the actress who insists on her own timing, we can fall out of sync with the beat of the universe, wandering off in our own little world and missing the intricate symbiosis of a soloist and her accompanist, left to sing alone to the vacuum of space. Timing is everything.