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Meters and Time Signatures in Musical Forms

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  • 0:01 Musical Form and Time…
  • 1:32 2/4 - Polka
  • 2:20 2/2 or 4/4 - March and Gavotte
  • 3:57 3/4 - Waltz, Mazurka,…
  • 8:41 6/8 - Gigue and Tarantella
  • 10:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

What's the difference between a waltz and a polka? What's a 'mazurka,' and why did Chopin write so many of them? How can time signature imply a type of form? Find the answers to these questions and more in this lesson!

Musical Form and Time Signature

This is Bob. Bob works at a music publishing print shop downtown, and he's preparing to print a book of sheet music by a well-respected yet indecisive composer who writes music in various musical forms. This particular book contains all untitled pieces, and unfortunately, he's just dropped all of the original copies on the floor. They are now scattered, and Bob must put the pieces back into the right order. Fortunately, Bob's knowledge of musical form and time signature will help him to do this with little trouble.

You (and Bob) already know that a time signature, also referred to as meter, is a symbol that shows what type of note shows the beat of the song and how many beats are in one measure. Many genres of music have specified time signatures that are a part of their characteristic feel, like a march. In the classical music world, this includes a great deal of dance music. Because music and dance are so interrelated, many types of musical forms are named for dances they accompany, like waltzes and polkas. Common time signatures used in classical genres are 2/4, 2/2, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8. So Bob can use this information to reorganize the music.

2/4 - Polka

For example, Bob knows that most polkas are in 2/4 time and have a familiar ONE-two ONE-two feel. This is usually heard as an 'oom-pah, oom-pah' or 'oom-pah-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah-pah' rhythm of split eighth notes in the bassline, like we hear in Strauss's 'Tritsch Tratsch Polka.' So when he sees this piece of music, he knows that it must be the polka.

2/2 or 4/4 - March and Gavotte

Bob also knows that although polkas and marches can sound similar, there are two basic differences:

1. Polkas tend to bounce a bit more than marches to drive the dancing. Marchers can't really bounce when they're in military regalia, and bouncing musicians is just a bad idea.

2. Also, although marches have a ONE-two, ONE-two feel like polkas, they tend to be written in the meter 2/2. 2/2 can also be written as cut time, which shows a letter C with a vertical line down the middle. Technically, you could write a march in 4/4 time and it would sound the same, but the rhythms are easier to read in cut time because they are larger note values. Sousa's 'Stars and Stripes Forever' is a classic example of this.

Bob knows of another cut time style called the gavotte. Gavottes were used for French dances and were used mostly in the Renaissance (1450-1600) and Baroque (1600-1750) periods. The later gavottes had a tendency to start the melody on the third beat of the measure, like we see here in Handel's 'Tempo di Gavotti.' So when Bob sees these cut time pieces, they must be the march and the gavotte.

3/4 - Waltz, Mazurka, Minuet, Scherzo

3/4 time is a bit trickier since so many styles of music and dance are in this time signature. The waltz, mazurka, minuet, and scherzo are all in 3/4 time, but their characteristics show the differences that set them apart.

The waltz starts with a strong first beat, like ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. This is usually heard as a bass note on the first beat and two lighter notes on the second and third beats, like 'oom-pah-pah', similar to the polka but with three beats. This makes it perfect for a rotational dance - or a big fat plate of pasta. Sometimes, the three beats feel like they are divisions of one quick beat, like the song 'Sobre Las Olas' by Juventino Rosas.

The mazurka, on the other hand, has either a strong second beat, like one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three, or a strong third beat, like one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE. This accent on the second or third beat is an essential quality of mazurkas and allows the dancer to put the correct emphasis on the correct beat. Chopin wrote many mazurkas, including this one.

Here are two samples from Bob's pile. Can you tell which is which? This one has accents on beat three, which makes it the mazurka. This one has a clean flow through the notes with no jaunty accents, so it must be the waltz.

Next, we have the minuet, sometimes spelled in the French spelling menuet, which is yet another dance accompaniment. In general, the minuet is a bit more graceful and is slower than the waltz. Because of this, all three beats are felt, unlike the way a waltz can be felt as a division of one beat. Also unlike the waltz, the minuet has no oom pah pah. It is often seen in early Classical symphonies as the 3rd movement of early symphonies and is paired with a trio. Bach's 'Minuet in G Major' is a classic example. Note that there is no oom-pah motion in the bassline.

The final musical form of 3/4 time is the scherzo. Beethoven is crowned as the official developer of the scherzo. The scherzo actually grew out of minuet and is also usually part of a symphony (3rd movement). The scherzo differs from the minuet in that it is quick and often humorous sounding, which is fitting since 'scherzo' is the Italian word for 'joke.' Another major difference is the lack of dance in a scherzo; it's solely used for listening purposes. The scherzo's rhythmic drive also makes it more playful than the minuet. In the third movement of Beethoven's Symphony #3, we can see the abruptly short notes whizzing by at a very quick pace.

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