Archive for March, 2010

Simple and Compound Time Signatures Explained

The time signature of a piece of music is shown by the two numbers that appear at the start. The most common time signatures you will come across, especially if you are a beginner, are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The top number tells us how many beats there are in each bar, whilst the bottom number tells us what sort of note it is that we are counting.

When we start learning, we are told that a crotchet is a 1 beat note, a minim 2 beats and a quaver half a beat,


However, this only works in time signatures that end in 4  (2/4, 3/4 etc) – these are termed simple time signatures. In other time signatures, we count different note lengths and this is what the bottom number signifies.

  • 2 = minims
  • 4 = crotchets
  • 8 = quavers
  • 16 = semiquavers

So, a time signature of 4/4 means we are counting 4 crotchets in each bar, but a time signature of 6/8 means we are counting 6 quavers. This means that a crotchet is only really a one beat note in a simple time signature, but in a time signature of 6/8, it would actually be 2 beats.

The Important thing is that the ratio between the notes never changes. There are always 2 quavers to a crotchet, and 2 crotchets to a minim.

Compound time signatures

Time signatures with an 8 at the bottom are called compound time signatures. These are ones where we count quavers.

In 6/8 we have 6 quavers in each bar, but we could also have 6 quavers in a bar of 3/4, so what is the difference?

bar of 3-4 + 6-8crop

As we can see, it is all about how the notes are grouped. In 3/4, we have three pairs of quavers which we count as 1 and 2 and 3 and but in 6/8 we have two groups of three quavers which we count as 1 and a 2 and a.

This means that in 6/8 we have two beats in each bar, but that each beat has three quavers in it. This means that a crotchet is not a one beat note any more, but is actually only two thirds of a beat.

So, our simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, but the compound time signatures are 6/8 (two beats in a bar), 9/8 (three beats in a bar) and 12/8 (four beats in a bar).

 bar comparisons crop

If we look at the music for this piece (Mozart C major Piano Sonata), we can see that it is in 4/4.

mozart 44crop

You can listen to it here (try to count along to feel the 4 beats in each bar)

Here is a second version where I have changed the time signature to 12/8.

mozart 12-8crop

I have had to add notes to ensure that there are three quavers in each beat, however the general feel is unchanged, apart from having the more flowing feeling of a compound time signature.

Comments Off more...

Preparing for exams and performances

Here are a few hints and tips on things you can do to help prepare for a performance or exam, I will not focus on any specific things as the exact requirements vary from board to board (ABRSM, Trinity etc.)but this advice is relevant to any performance either concerts or exams. There are several obvious things like practice and ensure you know all your scales etc. but here I am concerned with techniques to help keep you calm and ensure that you perform to the best of your ability.


Nerves are the biggest problem we have to contend with when performing, everyone gets nervous but there are ways to cope with nerves so that it does not impact on your playing.

It is very helpful to be aware of what being nervous will do to you physically, when we are nervous we get extra adrenalin in our system so our heart rate increases and you may feel tense. Because of this extra adrenalin we sense time differently than we would do normally so everything seems to take longer, in exams this usually means that we rush and try to play things at a tempo we are not used to. It is important to be aware of this and to consciously slow yourself down so you play at the tempo you practised at. A few deep and slow breaths before you start will help to calm you down and helps you focus on what you are doing

In an exam or performance we want to get things over and done with as fast as possible, In exams this often means we don’t listen to instructions properly and rush into what we are doing, for example we may play a major scale rather than a minor etc. Before you do anything take 2 or 3 breaths to think about it before you start although it may feel like a long time to you sitting the exam it really isn’t.

In the same way when performing a piece stop for a brief pause before you start and think through the first couple of bars of the piece to ensure you are focused on what you are playing and that you have the tempo firmly set in your head.

Waiting to perform:

One of the worst bits before an exam or performance is waiting for it to start, try not to worry too much and don’t think to much about what you are about to do. I would not suggest playing through pieces too often just before performing as this can make you panic about any tricky bits and actually often causes mistakes, instead play through some scales or other easy pieces (maybe from a previous grade) simply to keep your fingers, instrument, etc. warmed up and to help you relax. Make sure you do not over practice particularly if you are a wind or brass player you do not want to go into a performance with tired lips.

If you have to wait somewhere where you are unable to play try to have a friend with you who can stop you from panicking.

Ask questions:

If you are asked something that you don’t understand in an exam ask for clarification, examiners are very helpful and will not penalise you for misunderstanding or mishearing. This is particularly important for younger children who in exams may get flustered and forget what it is they are supposed to do at each stage and are nervous about asking a stranger questions.


Smiling makes you feel happier, relaxes you and it also helps embouchure on wind instruments. Audiences and examiners do not enjoy performances if they think that the performer is miserable. If you are enjoying playing then the audience/examiner will enjoy listening.

Some performance tips:

  • start clearly and positively – it is better to start too loud than to fade in gradually over the first few bars.
  • Keep going – if something goes wrong then keep going, you can get away with a few wrong notes but if you stop it is obvious you have gone wrong.
  • Don’t wince! – Often the only reason an audience know that you have made a mistake is the look on your face. Remember the audience don’t have the music in front of them and they will only know you have made a mistake if you tell them.
  • The ending – don’t cut the last note short and remember the piece is not over until all sound has stopped. On the piano do not hold notes on the pedal whilst you look around the room, keep your hands on the keys and release the keys and pedal together. If you are being accompanied then the piece does not stop until the accompaniment does.
  • Pay attention: Every moment you are visible to an audience you are performing if you have 4 bars rest do not spend them looking around the room and scratching your head because people will notice.
  • Enjoy yourself: as I said above if you are having fun the audience will be.

The two most important things are

  1. Don’t rush! As I said above most mistakes occur in performances because people try to do things too fast. Slow and right is always going to be better than fast and wrong.
  2. If it goes wrong it is not the end of the world. You would be amazed the mistakes that go unnoticed by an audience and you can always resit any exam and everyone has done a bad performance. Try not to get upset and just think ahead to next time and learn from your mistakes.

Good Luck

Comments Off more...

The Circle of 5ths and Understanding Keys

First of all what is a fifth?

Circle of fifths
Click for large pdf version

A fifth is an interval (a distance between notes) it is simply the distance between the first note of a sclae and the fifth note of
that scale for example in the key of C a fifth is the distance between C and G. It is very important to remember that it is not just
counting up 5 notes for example in the key of B Major which has F#,C#,G#,D#,A#, if we counted up five notes you would get to F whereas in this
scale the fifth is infact F#.

What does the circle of fifths do?

The circle of fifths is used to work out what the correct accidentals (sharps or flats) are in any given key and to show the
relationship between the various keys.

How does it work?

At the top of the circle we start with C with no accidentals we then simply move up a fifth each time as we progress around the
circle in a clockwise direction.

Each time we move one step around the circle another sharp is added to the scale so C has no sharps we then get G which has one sharp
then D which has two etc.

When we reach 7 steps round the circle we have obviously run out of sharps to add to the list so now we need to add the flat keys
to do this we follow exactly the same procedure but going round the circle in an anti-clockwise direction and this time we go down a
fifth each time so from C we go down to F which has one flat (Bb), if we go down a fifth from F we reach Bb (remembering a fifth is
not always simply fifive notes) and so on.

The sharps or flats are always added in the same order which can be remembered using this rhyme;


reading down the rhyme gives us the order of the sharps and reading it backwards


gives us the order of the flats.

So G major has one sharp F# and D major has two F# and C#. and so it continues.

Using this method you should be able to work out the key sigature for any major key.

The diagram also shows the minor keys which are related to each major key, for more information on how minor keys work
go to this article.

Comments Off more...

  • Pages

  • Copyright © 1996-2010 Alastair Cameron. All rights reserved.
    Jarrah theme by Templates Next | Powered by WordPress