What (signature) time is it?

March 4, 2015 at 02:14 AM · I figured it was time to do something a little more scholastic so I launched a probe into the mysteries of the time signature and I am now Wikipedia certified on this subject.

HOWEVER......what factors does a composer depend on to pick the "right" time signature?

I figured that was a real easy question until I found a piece written in 5/4. It is great. I love the phrasing. The piece can hardly be played any other way.

What's going on here?

Did the composer simply hear it that way or was 5/4 in vogue at some point in history?

Sure, even I can't miss a 3/4 waltz but 5/4 ??

Replies (27)

March 4, 2015 at 02:54 AM · The signature time right now is 9:51pm Eastern Standard Time. Hope this helps!

On another note, time signatures were invented when gregorian chants were put together in a polyphonic pieces which began around the 10-12th century (if my memory serves me correct). For people to play together off of musical notation, counting became the best solution.

March 4, 2015 at 04:35 AM · I'll buy that but suspect that there is more to it than Monks Jammin?

March 4, 2015 at 05:03 PM · Keep an open mind about music history, since most of it is not recorded. We do know that Greek plays had chants for a chorus and even songs. Some time signature / counting scheme seems likely to keep the group together. We also know that the Babylonians had professional musicians on multiple instruments and written records about music theory topics. Did they have a time signature? Who knows, but you have to keep a group of musicians together somehow if you are playing for the king and queen. The Babylonian culture goes back about 5000 years, so "time signatures" may be very old.

March 4, 2015 at 05:51 PM · Small prime numbers are obvious natural bases for time signatures. Other numbers like 4, 6, 8, 9, and 12 can generally be subdivided down into prime-numbered groupings. I think that's where time signatures came from. It's quite organic really.

One reason for the popularity of certain time signatures compared to others is the relationship that music has had historically with dance. How many 5/4 steps do they teach in a typical ballroom dance class?

Bear in mind that a number like 9 might break into 3+3+3 (Bach) or into 2+2+2+3 (Brubeck). 6/8 differs from 3/4 in where the emphases are typically placed. You can go up too: A slow blues that's written in 4 might be played to great effect with a 12/8 feel.

March 5, 2015 at 01:25 AM · Above posts very interesting with new insights for me.

I particularly like the word "organic" because I think it explains many violin "mysteries".

March 5, 2015 at 04:20 AM · It's really interesting actually since time signatures are based on proportions used in gothic architecture before they became use more broadly for motets.

There's always the intended time signature whenever improvising and I'm sure ancient civilizations were aware of the mathematical properties of music. However, from my understanding there is no evidence that support claims.

Wasn't music considered a discipline akin to math until Josquin de Pre change it to a rhetorical art form?

@Mike Laird, I'm curious as to where the research can be found to support the musicological claims of ancient civilizations. I agree with you absolutely that time signatures are very ancient whether the ancient cultures understood the knowledge of what we deem as "time signatures". In fact, I would assert that music is as ancient as the Judeo-Christian God--(A.K.A. eternal without a beginning or ending)--and henceforth time signatures are just an adherent part of music. But I'm only hypothesizing within theological terms without providing an ounce of research.

@Darlene Roth, the power of monks was more then just taking vows of chastity and abstaining from life pleasures. Medieval monks were at the forefront of academic studies in many fields including music which was considered a discipline akin to math which they took very seriously. They would chant Psalms and perform the Latin Mass each day. Monks took upon themselves different roles but we often have the wrong image of them.

Sorry for ranting all of this in one big post. I'm just chatting what is on my mind.


March 5, 2015 at 03:14 PM · I am beginning to realize that my efforts to understand the violin in a rigorous way are doomed. The violin is too configurable to be only one instrument in all situations which also is part of the charm and popularity of the violin over the ages.

What remains then after I am stripped of pompous rhetoric?

"The play's the thing!"

March 5, 2015 at 06:14 PM · Darlene, I tell my students the same thing about chemistry. If everything in chemistry could be explained and predicted neatly and easily, then I would not have a job. The same is true of medicine, law, etc.

March 5, 2015 at 11:41 PM · If there is no hidden stash of sacred violin knowledge then how can I hope that I will discover answers freeing me from the reality of my own imperfect skills ?

March 6, 2015 at 12:01 AM · By doing it and listening carefully for answers that are subtle and nonverbal.

I am not among those who find profundity in the similarities between 8 eighth notes in one bar of 4/4 time and 8 pillars across the front of the Parthenon. There are only a few small numbers and throughout the ascent of humankind they got used for a lot of different things. Its possible to make more out of something than is really there.

March 6, 2015 at 02:34 PM · "Listening carefully" ...... There was a time I was able to attend just about every event of the Yale School of Music and I watched everything and everybody. Those experiences needed no words but still influence my playing. And it was too early for me to try to analyze everything. I just listened. Best of times.

March 6, 2015 at 05:19 PM · Josiah,

I'm not talking about 'claims'. I'm talking about recorded documents, in cuneiform, from Babylon and Sumeria - 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

If you are interested, start with Lou Harrison's 27 minute lecture about Babylonian harp tuning for the modal scales that we have today, and how they dealt with augmented 4ths. Babylonian harps were as large as current harps, but did not have as many strings. You can find them in museums. Lou Harrison was a noted composer and musician.

Tuning the Babylonian Harp

If you have further interest in this subject, use Google Scholar and search the academic literature on topics like:

"Babylonian modal scales"

"Babylonian harp tuning"

"Sumerian scales and chords"

March 6, 2015 at 06:37 PM · Interesting! I'll look up Lou Harrison when I have time. Why doesn't my Taruskin History textbook include this... Sigh...

March 6, 2015 at 07:39 PM · If you ever take a class in poetry or song writing, you will learn about a basic human perception called the "foot" of the rhythm.

A simple example is a constant rhythm, say all quarter notes, and a constant tone, like the beat on single drum or the pressing of the same piano key.

There is a natural tendency for the human mind to group the beats into sets of 4 with a strong emphasis on the first beat and and lesser emphasis on the third beat.

Try tapping on a table with constant rhythm with the same emphasis on each tap. After awhile, the tendency is to "hear" an emphasis on the first of a group of four beats.

This is the basis of 4/4 time. If you arrange the poem or song words, or the melodic/harmonic emphasis on the first and third beats and the basic motif or idea is contained in one measure (4 beats), the music will sound especially pleasing or compelling.

This is a basic tenant of a compositional technique called prosody.

Other time signatures "sound" better when the emphasis on certain beats. 3/4 time sounds compelling when the emphasis is on the first beat.

You can play around with other tempos to decide where the placement of the emphasis sounds good. Suppose you want to explore 5 beat measures. Tap on the table and count in your head 1-2-3-4-5. Now repeat with the tap emphasis on the 1. Try it on the 2, then the 3 etc. The one that sounds the best to me is emphasis on the 2, so 1-2!-3-4-5. Emphasis on the 3 sounds particularly odd to me.

March 6, 2015 at 08:49 PM · I know nothing of "prosody" but I am amazed at the notion that rhythmic patterns might have some universal genetic origin.

I can say that after my first serious attention to 5/4, I had the unexpected feeling that it was "right" (?)

March 6, 2015 at 08:50 PM · In "Take Five" by Brubeck the secondary emphasis is on the 4th beat.

Darlene the most important violinist to whom you listen carefully is yourself! Theory only takes you so far. After that it's all empirical.

March 6, 2015 at 09:03 PM · There's a bit of humor in that.

I'm reaching the conclusion that the secret to playing the violin is that there is no secret to playing the violin but I did enough homework to satisfy my curiosities. ( for now ).

(I'm still intrigued by the rhythm issue. I swear that American TV shows/ads often have a subliminal beating drum at about the same tempo!)

March 7, 2015 at 04:48 AM · Darlene, the secret is inside you. Maybe I should recommend a book for you, but only if you are truly open-minded. It is called "The Secret Path" by Paul Brunton. You might not come away believing what he does, but there is wisdom in it nevertheless. And it's not overly long or stuffy. A wisp of a paperback.

Who are you? Have you ever asked yourself that question?

March 7, 2015 at 03:42 PM · I heard Dave Brubeck at the Academy of Music here in Philadelphia many years ago. Take Five is such an amazing piece.

Each instrumentalist was adding a pulse at different beats, and at different parts of each beat, down beat or up beat if you divide each quarter note into eights, in distinctly repetitive rhythms.

The bass player was dropping an emphasis on the down beat of the first beat.

The drummer was doing a distinctive cymbal clash on the up beat of the second beat.

The piano player added an identical chord pulse on the upbeat of the first beat and the down beat of the third beat, and then a subtle low note at the down beat of the fourth beat.

So each was repeating a rhythm and pulse sequence that was both distinct from one another so they could easily be picked out, but integrated seemlessly with each other.

Great jazz can break many of the rules of classical music and yet sound fantastic.

March 7, 2015 at 05:33 PM · Carmen

I have no issue with breaking rules and, as you say, Take Five is awesome.

I am just amazed that there is any rhythm at all !


The violin to me is only a tool. Some people cherish their tools, I do not. I do love the music and respect the playing skills.

I am obsessed with too much detail but only for the sake of knowing what I can safely ignore. My goal is to play without lingering distractions. I think that is part of being "good".

March 10, 2015 at 10:00 PM · One of my favourite time signature tricks is in Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" on their album "Wish You Were Here". Halfway through the saxophone solo the rhythm shifts from 3/4 to 6/8. Subtle but delightful. And in the reprise at the end of the album the same pattern is slightly modified and played in 4/4. Brilliant.

March 11, 2015 at 05:30 PM · I think I have a new respect for time signatures.

March 11, 2015 at 05:42 PM · I was trying to remember something I heard about in the 70s when I found an interesting list on Wikipedia. This is a link to Wikipedia's List of musical works in unusual time signatures.

The example I remembered is on this page ""Keep It Greasy" by Frank Zappa (On the studio album, first verse and guitar solo are counted in 19/16 and another part is in 21/16).[126]"

It's an interesting list.

March 11, 2015 at 08:03 PM · That, indeed, is a list to think about!

March 12, 2015 at 11:52 AM · See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quintuple_meter .

March 12, 2015 at 10:20 PM · Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats has a turnaround in 13/8. I have a CD of Andalusian music which contains a piece in 19/8 - I still can't quite follow it.

March 12, 2015 at 11:45 PM · I admit that I just don't get it but it gets worse. How about one measure of 5/8 in a whole song of 3/4?

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Virtual Sejong Music Competition
Virtual Sejong Music Competition

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases



Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins


Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine