Tunes (Part 4)

Welcome back to our ongoing series on the tunes behind the music we sing.  So far, we’ve talked a bit about the basic importance of a tune to a good psalm setting, and we’ve begun the process of actually selecting a tune.

If you’ve been following the series thus far, you’ll remember that we left off at the topic of meter, the first step in narrowing down the available choices for a particular song.  When we applied the principles of meter to a practical situation, we amassed a list of about sixty potential matches just from the tunes in the Psalter Hymnal!  It’s obvious that we need to introduce some more criteria in order to pare down our working list to a reasonable size.  Today, then, comes the second major element of a tune: its time signature.

“Time signature?” you might ask.  “Isn’t that the same thing as meter?”  Erm, well—yes and no.  In general music theory, the two terms are often used interchangeably.  But in church music, these are two distinct concepts, so I will try to be a little more precise:

  • Meter refers to the number of syllables in each line of poetry, which translates to the number of syllables in each line of music.
  • Time signature refers to the number of beats within each measure of music.

Although a full-scale dissertation on the elements and implications of time signature is far beyond the scope of this series, I hope the following explanation will suffice for the present.

If you glance at nearly any selection in the Psalter Hymnal, you’ll notice regularly-spaced vertical lines in between the musical notes.  These are “measure lines” or “bar lines,” and their purpose is simply to mark off each measure.  Although the measures contain notes of different beat lengths (eighth notes are usually half a beat, quarters a single beat, and halves two beats, for instance), the total number of beats in each measure will always be the same.  Thus, a measure with eight eighth notes, a measure with four quarter notes, and a measure with two half notes are all equivalent in duration.  Usually beats are measured in terms of quarter notes, so three quarter notes are said to equal three beats, while three half notes equal six beats.

The time signature of any piece of music is indicated by two numbers at the left edge of the first staff—3/4, 4/4, 4/2, 6/8, and so on.  In this notation, the top number indicates the number of beats per measure, and the bottom number indicates the beat value (2 for a half note, 4 for a quarter note, 8 for an eighth note).  A few examples:

  • 3/4 time signature contains three quarter notes in each measure.
  • 6/8 (for example, numbers 13 and 267) contains six eighth notes in each measure.
  • 3/2 (number 38 for example) contains three half notes per measure.
  • 4/4, such a common time signature that it is sometimes abbreviated as “C”, contains four quarter notes per measure.

These are the clumsily-explained basics of time signature.  Now, as with meter, there are numerous exceptions to these rules you’ll need to be aware of as you work through the Psalter Hymnal.  Here are a few:

  • Another frequent time signature is 2/2 or “¢”: two half notes per measure.  “But,” I often protested during my studies of music theory, “two half notes are the same as four quarter notes!  What’s the difference?”  Well, whereas a 4/4 piece has four beats per measure, a 2/2 piece—although its measures are exactly the same length—has only two.  This means that a 2/2 piece should be played a bit more quickly than would be typical in 4/4 time signature, and it should never be played with four accents per measure!  (If you try to play number 240 with four beats per measure, you’ll quickly discover why the distinction between 2/2 and 4/4 is so important.)
  • The first measure of some tunes is a “pick-up measure” containing only one beat (rarely two or three, e. g. 387).  These should always be played so that they point forward to the downbeat of the first full measure—don’t get “stuck” on the pick-up.
  • Many of the Genevan settings in the Psalter Hymnal (e.g. number 172) lack both time signature and bar lines.  This is because the Genevan Psalter was created on an entirely different musical system consisting of only two note values (short and long), completely without beats or measures.  Some tunes, like number 56, have been adapted to fit into a more familiar meter.  Just be on the lookout for these, and make sure you’re strong in the area of rhythm.
  • On rare occasions you’ll stumble across something wild, like the time signature of number 371: 3/2 and 4/2!  This notation simply indicates that some measures of the tune are in 3/2 and others in 4/2.  (But that’s just the beginning; in modern music, time signatures like 3/4+7/8 and 31/16 are not uncommon!)

At last, we’ve come to the conclusion of another long bout of music theory.  When we return to the topic of tunes, I’ll try to tie in these principles to our working example.  We’ll also look at accent—the very heartbeat, you might say, of a tune.  So join us again next time!



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