Special Note: This is the first of many articles to come that will have a full audio track available! Since this article focuses on time signatures and beat divisions, it may be helpful to listen to the audio track and follow along. If you can’t make the time to sit and listen/read the whole thing in one sitting, though, there are shorter audio clips after each musical excerpt shown. The audio track is about 17 minutes long.
In addition to about 20 elementary school classroom music lessons, and smaller music theory classes, I’ve taken on some weekly private lessons as well. One of my students was preparing for her Grade 5 ABRSM Theory exam, and it was quite an experience teaching her. She is an incredibly sharp, driven student, and she picked up on the concepts very quickly. Honestly though, it was challenging for me, since this was the highest level of music theory that I had ever taught so far, and some of the stuff I was teaching her, I didn’t even learn in college.
We went over reading notes in tenor and alto clefs, intervals of every kind (special shout-out to musictheory.net’s amazingly fun interval exercises, especially their Level 5 “Accidentals of Doom” section XD), transposition for orchestral instruments, and irregular time signatures. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to use “Hollow Bastion” as an example to show her an irregular time signature. And today, I am going to share that same lesson with all of you! 🙂
First, let’s listen to “Hollow Bastion”, from Kingdom Hearts I:
Oooooohhhhh this has been one of my all-time favorite video game tracks, if not just musical pieces in general. I could tell back in middle school when I played this game that there was something special about this track, but it wasn’t until college when irregular time signatures really clicked with me that I finally realized how rhythmically genius this track really is.
Here’s the first part of the main melody, which repeats many times at the beginning:
Before we talk about the time signature of “Hollow Bastion” though, let’s take a few very large steps backward. First we’re going to discuss simple time, then compound time, then irregular time.
Simple Time – Nice and Even
To start, let’s talk about the most common time signature, also aptly called “common time”: 4/4.
Note: I lecture my students from the very beginning that when writing a time signature, do NOT put a line between the two numbers. TIME SIGNATURES ARE NOT FRACTIONS. However, when typing out a time signature, one simply has to put the line there to show the separation of the two numbers. Sigh.
So what exactly does 4/4 mean? In a time signature, the top number indicates the number of beats per measure, and the bottom number indicates the type of note that receives one beat. So in 4/4, there are four beats in each measure, and the quarter note receives one beat.
We also have 3/4, and 2/4:
- 3/4 means each measure is divided into 3 beats.
- 2/4 means each measure is divided into 2 beats.
Both time signatures also have a 4 as the bottom number, meaning the quarter note still receives one beat.
These three time signatures—2/4, 3/4, and 4/4—are what we call simple time. Simple time means that each beat (in this case, the quarter note) can be divided evenly in two (in this case, two eighth notes). You can count these time signatures with a plus sign (“and”) between each beat, showing that they can be divided evenly. For example, you would count 4/4 as”1+2+3+4+” (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and):
In the same way, 3/4 is “1+2+3+”:
And 2/4 is “1+2+”:
2/4 time is also called simple duple time.
3/4 time is also called simple triple time.
And 4/4 time is also called simple quadruple time.
They’re all still simple time—meaning each beat can be divided evenly in two—but the second word, either duple, triple, or quadruple, refers to how many beats are in each measure.
In this section, the biggest take-away about simple time signatures is that each beat can be divided evenly in two. Now let’s talk about compound time signatures…
Compound Time – Unruly and Uneven
If the biggest take-away about simple time is that each beat is divided evenly in two, then the most important aspect of compound time is that each beat is divided unevenly in three. But what exactly does that look and sound like?
There are three main compound time signatures that we’ll talk about today: 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. First let’s discuss 6/8 time.
6/8, just from its name, can be thought of as 6 beats per measure, and the eighth note receives one beat.
However, instead of saying that 6/8 has six beats, I like to think of 6/8 as having two strong beats, which are then each divided unevenly in three.
6/8 is sometimes confused with 3/4, because both time signatures have 6 eighth notes in each measure. But the difference is where the strong beat lies. In 3/4, or simple triple time, we have three beats, each divided evenly in two; in 6/8, or compound duple time, we have two beats, each divided unevenly in three.
The other two compound time signatures are 9/8, also known as compound triple time, and 12/8, also known as compound quadruple time. Just like the other set of three time signatures in simple time, these three—6/8, 9/8, and 12/8—are all compound time because each strong beat is divided unevenly in three, with different top numbers depending on how many eighth notes there are in each measure.
You can figure out how many strong beats there are by dividing the top number by 3, since each strong beat is divided unevenly in three.
The biggest take-away from compound time signatures is that each beat is divided unevenly in three.
Note: The difference between “evenly divided” and “unevenly divided” beats is simply the number of beat divisions. “Even” means two beat divisions, and “uneven” means three beat divisions. The beat divisions are of equal sizes—eighth notes—there is simply a different number of divisions in simple and compound time.
Extra Geeky Note: Why do compound time signatures have the numbers 6, 9, and 12, when they, like simple time signatures, have 2, 3, and 4 strong beats? In the simple time signatures that we looked at, the bottom number was 4, meaning each beat was represented by a quarter note. Well, if we look at the full beat value in compound time, meaning when we add up the three uneven subdivisions of a compound time signature—eighth notes—it becomes a dotted quarter note. There’s no complete number that can represent 1.5 beats (it would just be weird to have a 1.5 as the bottom number), so we show how many total eighth notes there are instead.
Irregular Time Signatures – Nice AND Unruly!
Now we have arrived at irregular time signatures. Such time signatures include 7/8, 10/8, 11/8… The list goes on.
A simple time signature means that each beat can be divided evenly in two.
A compound time signature means that each beat can be divided unevenly in three.
So what does an irregular time signature mean?
In irregular time signatures, some beats are divided evenly in two, while other beats are divided unevenly in three.
Yes, it is a combination of evenly divided beats, with unevenly divided beats. Here’s where it gets a little gnarly, but oh-so fun!
Note: In simple time, we count with an “and” / “+” between each strong beat. In compound time, we count with an “and-a” / “+a” between each strong beat. In irregular time, instead of counting “and” and “and-a”, it is easier to count each simple beat division as “1-2” and each compound beat division as “1-2-3”.
In the case of 7/8, we usually will see one strong beat divided unevenly in three, and two strong beats each divided evenly in two. If a composer is feeling generous, a score will even have the break-down of a time signature’s subdivisions. For example, 7/8 is usually broken down as 2+2+3 or 3+2+2… 2+3+2 is possible, but it’s rare.
When we count 7/8 as 2+2+3, we can say 1-2/1-2/1-2-3:
In another example of 7/8, we can also count it as 3+2+2, or 1-2-3/1-2/1-2:
A lot of traditional music from various Middle Eastern countries uses the 7/8 time signature. Here’s a beautiful example of a Turkish duet, on tabla (the woman on percussion) and oud (the man on the stringed instrument). After the intro, it uses the 7/8, 2+2+3 beat division.
Here’s the same piece with me * ~ doing my very best ~ * to count the beat divisions:
I started trying to catch a breath at every other “3”—my apologies! ^_^’ Hope it was still clear!!
Back in college, I played percussion in my school’s wind ensemble for one quarter. If I learned anything from playing with that band for 10 short weeks, it was to finally have irregular time signatures make sense to me. There was a piece we played (“Vesuvius”, by Frank Ticheli) which had a section that was in 9/8 (if you’re interested, the 9/8 part is at 1:08). I was on the marimba part, and was trying to count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. The tempo was pretty fast, and I was sight-reading, and having such a difficult time.
It was important for the composer to make the (2+3+2+2) distinction, because 9/8 is usually compound triple time.
I finally noticed that our director was conducting in a 4 pattern. This confused me because the time signature was 9/8. But I noticed that he held the second beat a little longer than the other three beats.
Then it finally clicked: he was conducting the first, third, and fourth beats in simple time (two beat divisions), and the second beat was in compound time (three beat divisions). Once I realized that it could be counted as 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, rather than 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, it made a LOT more sense and I was able to play it correctly.
In the same way, sometimes you will see 8/8, which you may think is the same as 4/4 (both would have 8 eighth notes), but just as 6/8 and 3/4 are different, 8/8 and 4/4 are different because of how the eighth notes are grouped—in other words, they are different based on where the strong beats lie.
8/8 is often seen grouped as 3+3+2, so three strong beats: the first two are divided unevenly in three, and the last one is divided evenly in two.
Now here’s where we get back to Hollow Bastion. Go ahead and listen to the track again:
If we listen closely to the main melody in the beginning section, we can hear that there are two compound beats (divided unevenly in three), followed by two simple beats (divided evenly in two), which means that this piece is in 10/8 (3+3+2+2).
I’ve seen this piece transcribed as being in 5/8, but I could not disagree more. Throughout the entire piece, you can distinctly hear four strong beats (especially in the low string section), the first two divided unevenly in 3 and the last two divided evenly in 2. I’ll even count it out for you right now :3
And there you have it! Yet another reason to love Kingdom Hearts, and especially more love to Yoko Shimomura, the composer ^__^ ♪