Time, Time Signatures and Musical Notation

Oftentimes a drummer is expected to “keep the time.”  I prefer to think of this as an opportunity rather than a burden.  You can play the time anyway you want: badly, solid, funky, swung, etc.  It is an honor to be given such a large responsibility when playing with other musicians.

Time is the pulse that flows through music.  Time signatures are ways to denote the pulse.  As with most musical notation, it usually results in a simplification of a more abstract concept.  Time signatures can be very ambiguous.  What is the difference between 3/2, 6/4, and 12/8?  All three suggest that you play the same amount of time for each measure. Since, 3 half notes = 6 quarter notes = 12 eighth notes.  A time signature, therefore, implies how the pulse should be accented in order to give a particular musical feeling.  In fact, time is usually denoted using two markings: time signature and a tempo marking.  A tempo marking is a term such as legato, swung, shuffle, or bossa nova that tells the musician the speed and/or style of the time.  So, using a tempo marking and time signature it is possible to approximate the intended time(pulse) of the song.  Personally, I only like to use time signatures as a last resort when trying to explain a piece of music, rhythm, or pattern.  (When writing or transcribing music, especially for others, a time signature is almost always necessary).

Like time signatures, western musical notation is ambiguous to the drummer.  Here is an example:

An unambiguous way to denote a pattern:  x•x•

Both x’s and •’s represent an equal amount of time.  An x indicates a strike and a • represents a space or rest.

In western musical notation this pattern can be denoted as:




These may have a different meaning to a musician that controls note length but, generally, a drummer is not concerned with note length, only when to strike his instrument.  (It is possible play specific note lengths by muting a cymbal appropriately, for example.)

Also, to reiterate the ambiguity of time signatures, the above pattern can be written as:



So, in this blog, I will be using x’s and •’s to denote ostinatos and patterns.  For those interested in musical notation (which is important to becoming a well-rounded musician), you can always transcribe  a pattern and play around with the different ways you can transcribe a single pattern.  Also, does the way you transcribe the pattern influence the way you play it?


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