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#2007726 - 01/01/13 11:28 PM How to teach the meaning of time signatures.
Opus_Maximus Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/27/04
Posts: 1500
Happy new year, lovely teachers smile

The concept of time signatures has always been one of the most difficult things for me to impart to students, and I'm interested to hear a variety of opinions on how you introduce and explain the MEANING of a time signature - top and bottom number - to your students.

While my students generally play well and progress, I wonder if there are ways I can be clearer about the way I teach and introduce time signatures.

The confusion will go something like this:

"Ok, this is 4/4. The top number means there are four counts in a measure (clear enough), and the bottom four lets us know a quarter note gets ONE beat". It's always the bottom number that throws students off because it's like "Well I thought a quarter note always got one count anyway since we learned that in our first piano lesson..."..then you have to explain that SOMETIMES it doesn't, and this just further confuses people, especially young students. Then when we get to 6/8 I need to explain that the 8th note suddenly gets one count, but that doesn't mean that the whole thing goes faster (Since many students instinctively think of 8ths as fast notes). etc. etc.

Granted, its one of those things that (for a beginner) can remain relatively unclear without it showing in their playing. I know that when I was six and beginning I certainly did not understand the purpose of time sigs other than we would count up to what the top number was - but I'm trying to give my students better training than what I had.

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#2007735 - 01/01/13 11:46 PM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Opus_Maximus]
Minniemay Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/07/09
Posts: 1702
Loc: CA
I start with a modified time signature that has the number of beats over an actual quarter note. At some point I make the switch, but I simply tell them there is the equivalent of 4 quarter notes (or 3 or 5) in each measure, not that the quarter note gets one beat. They assume that, and for a long time, that's all they need know.

However, when we get to compound meters, I don't teach the 8th note getting one beat. I teach the dotted quarter getting one beat, but there just happens to be 6 eighth notes. We use that time signature because there isn't a numerical representation of a dotted quarter note.

I don't spend a lot of time with explanations. They are already playing the rhythms correctly because they've had a lot of experience with the rhythms before I introduce on the page and before they have to read it. We simply create a picture (notes) to represent what we really already know.
B.A., Piano, Piano Pegagogy, Music Ed.
M.M., Piano

#2007746 - 01/02/13 12:09 AM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Opus_Maximus]
btb Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/21/04
Posts: 4263
Loc: Pretoria South Africa
My read looks first at COMMON (divisible by 2) or WALTZ-TIME (divisible by 3)
The second number shows the measure “split”
2 = half notes
4 = quarter notes
8 = eighth notes
16 = sixteenth notes

I liked the opening salutation of the OP
“Happy new year, lovely teachers” ...
you dames must get out your lipstick ...
I’m ancient, bald and past repair ...
but it’s nice to dream.

#2007747 - 01/02/13 12:13 AM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Opus_Maximus]
John v.d.Brook Online   content
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/18/06
Posts: 7417
Loc: Olympia, Washington, USA
OM, most of the modern method books are careful not to stick with 4/4 time, after introducing the time signature, and quickly add 3/4 and soon there after, 6/8. But as I teach beginners, I ask if they've had fractions in school yet, and if they have, it makes the process much easier. Anyway, we do a lot of rhythm clapping and I can quickly grab a book with music which has 6/8, 3/8, 2/2, etc., and we examine that as well.

BTW, music written in 3/8 generally does have a faster tempo than 3/4 (but not always, of course), and we talk about compound meter very early on as well. 6/8 really being two beats/pulses per measure.

Of course, you have to reinforce these concepts continually, at least for most students. They're absorbing a lot of new information and that which isn't repeated tends to get lost.
"Those who dare to teach must never cease to learn." -- Richard Henry Dann
Full-time Private Piano Teacher offering Piano Lessons in Olympia, WA. www.mypianoteacher.com
Certified by the American College of Musicians; member NGPT, MTNA, WSMTA, OMTA

#2007782 - 01/02/13 01:38 AM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Opus_Maximus]
AZNpiano Online   happy
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/07/07
Posts: 5590
Loc: Orange County, CA
I tend to wait a bit to teach the meaning of time signatures. Kids arrive at this level of comprehension at different stages, but usually by 3rd or 4th grade whey they start doing multiplication and division in math. Before then, I'd happy if the student can match the metronome and keep a steady pulse by imitation.

This is another reason I don't usually let younger kids do CM, because CM makes them write out counts on the test, and if they can't tell the difference between 4/4 and 6/8 conceptually, they'll miss that part of the test. I have a sixth grader who still doesn't get 6/8 time, and I've tried every conceivable way of teaching it.
Private Piano Teacher and MTAC Member

#2007862 - 01/02/13 09:02 AM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Opus_Maximus]
Morodiene Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/06/07
Posts: 12215
Loc: Boynton Beach, FL
I tell them at first when I introduce the time signature that the 4 on the bottom is just a reminder that a quarter note gets one beat. Many method books actually put a quarter note instead of a 4 when first introducing time signatures. I may mention that this number can change, but that we will get to that later and move on. It's usually not an issue, although at first they seem to always forget what the bottom 4 means, but as we go along it's not something that comes up until we get to compound meter.

When we do have to talk about 3/8 or 6/8, by the way, I draw a simple note 'tree' where you have a whole note, then under that 2 half notes, then under those 4 quarters, then 8 8ths, 16 16ths. Then I remind them that when there is a 4 on the bottom, the quarter note gets one beat. In the case of 4/4, you can fit 4 quarters in a measure, or 8 8ths, or 16 16ths or any combination that adds up to 4 quarters in the end (going up the tree, 2 halfs or 1 whole).

Now, if there happens to be an 8 on the bottom, everything gets shifted down. If we are dealing with 3/8, I would draw 3 8th notes, and then down from that 6 16ths, up from that I would ask them what kind of note would be the equivalent of 3 8ths, and help them to arrive at a dotted quarter. Then proceed into lots fo counting examples.

Generally at this point they are older and able to understand these concepts much better. Introducing it too soon just causes confusion, IMO.
private piano/voice teacher - full time
MTNA member
Petrof 9'2 Concert, Yamaha G3, Roland FP-7, Yamaha MOX6, Kawai MP11

#2007924 - 01/02/13 11:50 AM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Opus_Maximus]
ezpiano.org Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/10/11
Posts: 1027
Loc: Irvine, CA
In the beginning, I only explain 2/4 has two beats, and 4/4 has four beats. I do not explain the meaning of 4 at the bottom. When they start 6/8, then I explain the meaning of the bottom numbers for them. At the time they learn 6/8, they should have learn fraction at school, so, I explain the bottom number just like BTB:
The second number shows the measure “split”
2 = half notes
4 = quarter notes
8 = eighth notes
16 = sixteenth notes

It works well for my students.
Piano lessons in Irvine, CA
Watch the introduction video on YouTube
@ http://bit.ly/Ready123

#2007974 - 01/02/13 01:16 PM Re: How to teach the meaning of time signatures. [Re: Minniemay]
LoPresti Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 1304
Loc: New York
Originally Posted By: Minniemay
. . . However, when we get to compound meters, I don't teach the 8th note getting one beat. I teach the dotted quarter getting one beat, but there just happens to be 6 eighth notes. We use that time signature because there isn't a numerical representation of a dotted quarter note.

Actually Lucas Foss, and (I believe) Alfred Schnittke got to the heart of this problem, and removed any ambiquity, by placing the number "1.5" below a '1' (for 3/8 meter), or a "2" (for 6/8 meter) or a 3 (for 9/8 meter) or a 4 (representing 12/8 meter), in the meter signature when they intended the dotted-quarter to receive one beat.

Of course, that creates its own inconsistancy in logic, as you will see, absolutely REQUIRING the notation (dotted-quarter = xxxx) whenever the meter changes from "compound".


In music, everything one does correctly helps everything else.


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