Time Signature Sub-Division


Beat Basics: Sub-Division, Making Time Signature Work For You

As we know, the time signature defines the count for each measure.  The count is like a palette of options, and the measures are like a canvas, ready to be created with.  Sub-division is what gives us the rhythm.  It is the color spectrum on the palette.

Sub-division is the breaking down of the count into smaller counts.  These smaller counts create the rhythm of the beat.  Also, they add up to equal the time signature, i.e. the overall count.  There are many ways to sub-divide with any given meter.  (Meter is another name for the time signature)

Let’s have an example.  We’ll use 7/8, which as we learned in the last Beat Basics article means a count of 7 eighth notes in each measure.  First, let’s break it down this way: 1-2  1-2  1-2-3,  1-2  1-2  1-2-3.  Three groupings of eighth notes that equal up to 7.  Hand clap on the 1 of each group to get a sense of the rhythm that is created by this sub-division: 1-2  1-2  1-2-3, 1-2  1-2  1-2-3, 1-2  1-2 1-2-3.  Notice the rhythm?  This is used in Turkish, Arabic, and some Latin music.

Another way to breakdown 7/8 is: 1-2  1-2-3  1-2, 1-2  1-2-3  1-2.  Do you see the difference between the two sub-divisions?  They have a different emphasis, and the count makes a different rhythm, even though they are both still in the same time signature.  7/8 can also be broken down as: 1-2-3  1-2  1-2,  1-2-3  1-2  1-2.  This creates yet another type of rhythm.  Any combination of eighth notes can be used, as long as they add up to 7, each one creating a different feel.  Even this unusual one works: 1  1-2-3  1-2-3,  1 1-2-3  1-2-3,  1  1-2-3  1-2-3.  Try clapping that one, it almost has a broken record feel as it comes back to the beginning of the rhythm.

We’ve looked at 7/8, let’s try a different time signature to further emphasize the point.  This time we’ll use 9/8.  The most common form of 9/8 is this: 1-2-3  1-2-3  1-2-3, 1-2-3  1-2-3  1-2-3.  This gives a triplet feel to the count.  Here is another way to do it:  1-2  1-2  1-2-3  1-2,  1-2  1-2  1-2-3  1-2.  There’s a big difference between the two, but they are both using the same time signature.

Do you see the value of knowing sub-division?  It opens up a whole new range of musical expression.  Knowing how to break down a time signature into different rhythms allows one to create with a whole range of different feels.  Not only does sub-division effect the rhythm and movement of a song, but it also significantly effects the melodic and chordal structure of the song.  The melody will be written based upon the rhythm of the music.  Rather than sticking to the standard 4/4 beat of most music, sub-dividing adds a whole variety of possibility.

Once one masters sub-dividing, one can then begin to create music that switches time signatures multiple times throughout a song.  This adds a great depth to what one can create.  The possibilities are indeed endless.  Hopefully this helps further your understand of time signature and rhythm.  The next installment of beat basics will cover Syncopation.  In the meantime, start counting and experimenting!

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