What is an Alla Breve?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to change the impact of a song. In this lesson, we are going to explore the concept of the alla breve and see how it can be used to change the impact of a song.

Alla Breve

The term alla breve sounds like a way to order coffee. I'll have my latte alla breve, please. Well, it's not. But it is a way to order music. Every song is divided into measures of an equal number of beats. Just as some lattes have four shots of espresso, or three or two, songs are largely defined by the number of beats they have in each measure. A song written in alla breve is written with two beats per measure, which is symbolized in sheet music by a 'C' with a vertical line through it, sort of like the sign for cents. When you want to control the amount of energy you get in your latte, you alter the shots of espresso. When you want to control the energy of a song, you alter the number of beats per measure. So the next time you wake up tired, consider ordering your morning music alla breve. It might just do the trick.

Common versus Cut Time Signatures

Like we said, songs are divided into measures with equal numbers of beats. The number of beats per measure is called the time signature of the song. In symphonic performances, conductors wave their arms, actually counting the beats as they appear in that time signature. The majority of songs are written in what we call common time, represented by a time signature of 4/4. The second number (or on sheet music- the bottom number) tells us which note equals a single beat, and the top number tells us how many are in a measure. So, in common time the quarter note equals one beat, and there are four quarter notes in a measure.

The symbols for alla breve
Cut time

Songs in alla breve contain two beats per measure, with the half note equaling one beat. That means that the time signature of the alla breve is represented as 2/2. This is half of the 4/4 time, which is where the name alla breve actually comes from. In Italian, this phrase translates to in the shortened fashion. Since it is half of the common time, alla breve is commonly called cut time in English.

In alla breve, the half note represents one beat

Impact on Music

Changing the meter can drastically change the feel of a song, so what impact does the alla breve have? Let's start by looking at beat hierarchy, or the emphasis of beats in a measure. The first beat (called the down beat) is the strongest. In common time, the four beats naturally form a pattern of strong-weak-medium-weak. With the use of alla breve, there are only two beats per measure, so every other beat is a downbeat. This means the beat hierarchy is a pattern of strong-weak, strong-weak, etc.

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