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Beyond E Major

Article from One Two Testing, February 1985

making sense of written music

Continuing his assault on music-as-scribbled, Billy Jenkins delves into notes, their length, value and worth. (Very little, they're all treacherous scumbags.)

Last month's article suggested an accepted way of mapping out music by using chord charts with bar lines — the effect being to break a sequence of music down into equal parts, or bars, thereby helping others to understand your musical ideas with ease.

Let us now go one step further and delve inside the bar and look at the wonderful world of timing and the different aspects of the thing that make us swing.

Timing breaks down into two departments — tempo and rhythm. Tempo is the speed of a piece of music, defined as beats per minute (bpm), and rhythm is the WAY in which the tempo is played.

I should point out that it would be easy to sprout forth with a complex cacophony of diagrams, explanations, and charts — all copied (with slight adjustment so as to claim a 'new slant' on it) from one of the ten zillion books obtainable on musical theory.

If you want to learn verbatim, go out and get them. If, like me, logic is something that seeps slowly in and is not carried direct from eye to brain where it is stored in something resembling the OTT office, that is the last thing on which to waste your money.

However, I too shall jump on the bandwagon and give you another slice of Sing Something Simple.


If it's very fast (168 bpm to Space Shuttle takeoff) it's upbeat, be-bop, Jerry Lee Lewis at 78 rpm, leg breaking, spine smashing, or, for the Italian Bluesman on the Venice Delta — presto or prestissimo.

If it's fast (120-168) it's uptown, cooking, funky, groovy, disco, Triumph Dolomite, or allegro.

Moderate speed (108-120) is Status Quo, Leonard Cohen at 78 rpm, swing, cool, hot, mohican haircuts, or moderate.

Between quick and slow (76-108) — grind, pelvic grating, walking the dog with a limp, Model 'T' Ford, granny, or andante.

Bit slower (66-76) — greatgranny, fat people, slugs, Nico squeezed through a mangle, lentil diet, or lento or adagio.

Even slower (40-66) — Elvis Presley (deceased), Ian Curtis at 78 rpm (deceased), Frank Sinatra (deceased). Pass the largo, things are looking grave.

Having got tempo in perspective we now turn our attention to:


Here it is very hard not to consult a reference book — I find the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (ISBN 0 19 311320 1) a useful and informative bedside thumber.

The shape of each note should become familiar — a very rough guide states that starting with the outline of a rugby football that has fallen over, the more bits filled in and added, the shorter the sound becomes. The Americans, when not flicking from one TV station to another, have neatly encapsulated note symbols by breaking a bar down in multiples.

Therefore a note that lasts a whole bar is a Whole note, a note that lasts half a bar is a Half note, and so on through Quarter, Eighth, Sixteenth, Thirty-second and Sixty-fourth notes.

The diagram should enlighten those who only wish to look at the pictures.

So you can take a simple 4/4 chord chart and start filling in the rhythm accents. Suddenly you panic. You mean to say I can get 64 notes in one bar?

Yup. You mean to say I can get two Quarter notes, one Eighth note, and six Sixteenth notes into one bar? Yup. But hold it a minute. What's this 4/4 you go on about?

Delve into the music books and all time signatures fall into different divisions.

That is the Time Signature. Notes have no actual time value — their duration is taken from the stated tempo (bpm refers to the number of quarter/crotchet notes per minute) and the time signature.

Signatures can be roughly explained as follows:

The top figure denotes how many beats to the bar, and the bottom figure tells you what type of beats they are. So, 4/4 means four Quarter beats to the bar, 6/8 means six Eighth beats to the bar, and 2/2 means two Half beats to the bar.


Simple time signatures are those that specify that a bar is based solely on ordinary notes — minim, crotchet, quaver etc., and you can have 2/2, 2/4, or 2/8 — known as simple duple; 3/2, 3/4, 3/8, or 3/16 — simple triple; or 4/2, 4/4, or 4/8 — known as simple quadruple. The simplest and most widely used time is 4/4, called "common time".

What is the difference between 2/4 and 4/4?

You could say that a piece written in 2/4 has twice as many bars as the same piece written in 4/4. But the difference is in the 'feel' on account of the accent placed on the first beat.


Compound time signatures specify that the beats are counted in groups of three. Therefore 6/4, 6/8, and 6/16 are considered to be compound duple; 9/4, 9/8, and 9/16, are compound triple; and 12/4, 12/8, 12/16, and 24/16 are compound quadruple.

Compound signatures are based on ordinary notes that have been dotted.

The dot in music is more than just a blot on the page. If ever a dot immediately follows a note it LENGTHENS IT BY ONE HALF. So, knowing that one crotchet is worth two quavers, a dotted crotchet is worth three. Likewise a minim is worth two crotchets. Dot it and it is worth three.

So why is 3/4 simple and not compound?

Because a bar of 3/4 breaks down into three distinct beats of crotchets.

So why is 6/8 time compound?

A bar must be broken down equally, and each time signature has its own unique feel. 6/8 is initially broken down to two dotted crotchets (which makes six quavers, or eight notes).

Other compound examples broken down are 9/8, into three dotted crotchets; and 12/4 into four dotted minims (four groups of three crotchets).

Confused? Then read on.

Music with odd beats to the bar e.g. five, seven, or eleven, are in asymmetric time, since these numbers are not divisible by two or three. But these bars too can be broken down, with accents being placed on certain beats. For example, 7/4 might be played as one bar of four and one of three. 11/8 can be broken down various ways such as 4 + 4 + 3 = 11 or 6 + 5 = 11.

Having set the time signature, the songwriter has the framework from which he can dissect each beat into smaller multiples.


Tap a regular beat with your foot.

Count four beats to the bar over and over again, putting emphasis on the first beat of the bar.

With your right hand, tap two for every one on the foot, ie Eighth notes (one and two and three and four and...). Your foot is tapping crotchets, your hand, quavers.


...Your foot, if you like, is the time signature, and your hand the rhythm.

Tap out these simple patterns:

Now alternate the eight from your hand with 16s (semi-quavers). Slow down your foot if you can't get them all in!

Now repeat the exercise in 3/4. Count one two three one two three. There will be six quavers to the bar, and 12 semiquavers. Your foot, if you like, is the time signature and tempo, and your hand is the rhythm.

Try writing some simple patterns down. Finally, listen again to some of your favourite records. Work out the time, and what fractions the drummer is playing the hi-hat or cymbals in. If it's in 11½/17⅓, your stylus is buggered.

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Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Feb 1985

Feature by Billy Jenkins

Previous article in this issue:

> Heroes

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> Drugs and the Musician

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