Reading Music with WebRhythms: Lesson 12

Learn to read music with Norm Weinburg's WebRhythms!
Lesson 15/23


Welcome to WebRhythms - an easy step-by-step method for learning to read rhythm, created by Vic Firth artist and educator Norm Weinberg. Starting at the very beginning, you'll progress through 20 lessons, where each introduces a new topic. By the end of the series, you'll be a master at reading rhythm!

In this WebRhythms lesson, you'll learn to read music in “cut time” signatures. The exercise you'll be working on in this lesson will include audio play-along tracks in five different levels that you can use to track your progress!



Several different time signatures have been covered in these WebRhythms lessons. We’ve talked about meters that use quarter notes as the basic value of the count (4-4, 3-4, 5-4, 7-4, etc.) and those which use eighth notes (3-8, 4-8, 6-8, 9-8, etc.). This lesson, we explore a special type of time signature called “cut time”.

Without going into a long explanation of the history of rhythmic notation through the centuries, the meter of 4-4 has long been represented by a large “C” at the beginning of a piece of music. For this reason, the meter of 4-4 has often been called “common time”. There is another meter that uses the same C figure, but with a line running through it (see the signature on example 1). This meter is commonly referred to as “cut time”.

Cut time is actually the time signature of 2-2, and the bisected C figure acts as an abbreviation. In this meter, there are two counts to each measure and the half note (instead of the quarter or eighth note) receives the value of a single count. Let’s see how this meter is related to two other familiar meters.

Take a look at example 1. This is a measure of cut time that looks as though it could easily be performed in common (4-4) time. If there are two half notes during each measure, aren’t there also four quarter notes in each measure? Yes, you could play this example as if it were in 4-4 time, but it wouldn’t have the proper feel.

webrhythms 12 example 1

You know that 4-4 time has four beats, but cut time has only two beats per bar. In essence, it’s as if each bar of 4-4 time has been “cut” in half (only two beats). Notice how the syllables under the notes in this example show that the first measure should have a count under each half note. In measure two of the example, the quarter notes serve as the first level of subdivision (as always, using the syllables “and”), and the eighth notes in the third measure are the second level of subdivision (using the “e” and “a” syllables).

For an easier way to understand the difference between cut time and common time, compare example 1 with example 2. While these two examples look totally different, they would sound the same, and be counted the same. You can see that cut time actually has more in common with 2-4 meter than it does with 4-4 time.

webrhythms 12 example 2

Examples 3 and 4 show this same relationship. Example 3, in cut time, uses the values of quarter note triplets to divide each count into three equal parts, and eighth note triplets to divide each count into six equal parts. Example 4, written in 2-4 time must use eighth triplets and sixteenth triplets in order to convey the same rhythm.

webrhythms 12 example 3
webrhythms 12 example 4

I can hear you asking: Why would a composer write anything in cut time, if 2-4 can be used to achieve the same results? Cut time has certain musical associations. Many jazz pieces, pop tunes, and marches are written in this meter. While 2-4 time can progress at just about any tempo, cut time is usually performed fast. In reality, a moderate tempo in cut time is about the same as a moderate tempo in common time. But, when the half note is getting the beat instead of the quarter note, quarters move by at twice the pace and the page is played “faster”. If a composer is writing a march or jazz style piece at an up tempo, they will often choose cut time instead of 2-4.

There is also another reason for using the cut time signature. Just compare measure three in the first two examples. In cut time, the measure consists of nothing more difficult than quarters and eighths. Writing the same rhythm in 2-4 time requires two distinctively different figures that use eighths and sixteenths. While those two figures aren’t extremely difficult (especially if you’ve been a regular reader of this WebRhythms), you’d be surprised at how many musicians balk when sight reading these figures. If a composer thinks he may be dealing with players with limited reading abilities, he may choose cut time over 2-4. Cut time allows the composer to use simple rhythms to communicate the same musical idea.

Just one more item. Because cut time uses larger rhythmic values, there is a tendency for the player to be more comfortable with the page. Most drummers tend to get somewhat nervous when looking at music that has a bunch of beams on every note and very little white space (the dreaded “Black Page” syndrome). If a player is waking into a high pressure studio or free-lance situation, they are likely to feel more calm and under control when reading something in cut time. This feeling will translate into an easy going, relaxed performance. When you look at the exercise for this month, you might think: “Gee, this doesn’t look very hard”. That’s just the feeling a composer might want to convey.

Here’s an additional performance note about this lesson’s exercise. Sixteenth notes (like those found in measures eight and ten) will require playing four notes in the space of one-half count. Here’s an easy way to accomplish this. During measure eight, play the two eighth notes on the “e” and “a” syllables of count one. When you arrive at count two, instead of performing the written rhythm, play the rhythm of two eighths and a quarter with your right hand. Playing this new rhythm will mean that you will strike the drum on syllables “2 e +” with your right hand. Once this becomes comfortable, subdivide each eighth note into two parts by using your left hand in between each right. In other words, play two notes on the syllable “2” and two more notes on the syllable “e”.

If you’re still having trouble with the cut time measures that contain sixteenth notes, slow them down and count them just as you would if they were written in common time. Then, as you take them a little faster, change your counting system from four counts per bar to two counts. When you change over to the cut time counting system, the rhythm of the measure should stay the same.

As you work on this WebRhythms exercise, try to play it with a relaxed feel and at a comfortable pace. Really listen for (and let your playing convey) the “two” beat feel.

webrhythms lesson 12 thumb

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Reading Music with WebRhythms: Exercise 12