September 24, 2013

The Truth About Time Signatures

This post is about a pet peeve of mine; what time signatures really mean.
First, let me go over what a time signature is for the non-musicians reading this. At the beginning of a piece of music, there are several different symbols including a couple of numbers stacked on top of each other like a fraction. Sometimes there is a large letter C or a C with a line through it instead. This is the time signature.
C with a line means the same as 2/2.

Time Signatures
C and 4/4 are also the same. Don't worry about why, they just are.
It is sadly common for people to say the time signature tells you which note gets the beat and how many beats are in a measure or even worse, that it tells you what meter (pattern of strong and weak beats) the piece uses. The trouble is, these ideas are only right some of the time, not all. And they are right just often enough that people don't always notice how wrong they really are.
What the time signature really tells us is what the musical note values in one measure will add up to. That's it, nothing else.

Simply put, the numbers are the fraction of a whole note within each measure. So 3/4 means there is three fourths of a whole note in a measure which is the same as 3 quarter notes. However, a 3/4 time signature is more likely to use the dotted half note for the beat than the quarter note. Another example is 6/8 which means there are six eighths of a whole note in one measure which is the same as 6 eighth notes. And the 6/8 time signature rarely uses the eighth note for the beat; the dotted quarter note is a much more common choice with this time signature.
A more complex way to say this is: The bottom number represents a note value. This means 2 is a half note, 4 is a quarter note, 8 is an eighth note, 16 is a sixteenth note and so on. The top number tells you how many of the note values represented by the bottom number are in one measure. So 4/4 means there are 4 quarter notes in one measure and 3/16 means there are 3 sixteenth notes in one measure. Now 4/4 sometimes uses quarter notes for the beat but just as often uses the half note or the sixteenth note depending on how fast or slow the piece is overall. In 3/16 the sixteenth note, the dotted eighth note or even the 32nd note can be counted as the beat. There is simply no way to tell from the time signature. It also doesn't tell you what rhythm patterns or meter will be used. These things are often implied by the time signature but there is no absolute relation between time signature and which note you count or the meter used. The music itself is a much better guide for figuring out the meter. And the speed (with the meter in mind) most often determines what note will be counted. It is a good idea to match a time signature with the meter in some way that people can understand but it is quite possible to impose unexpected time signatures on any meter if you are stubborn enough and don't mind making your music very difficult to play. Stravinsky did this at times, apparently in an attempt to drive his orchestra to distraction. But in general, we like our meter and time signature to work together in some way.

In a sense, the only thing the time signature reliably tells us is where to place the bar lines between each measure. This is very important for keeping your place in the music, especially when there is more than one musical part in a piece. Keeping a musical group together without a time signature or bar lines is a much more complicated process!

September 6, 2013

All a Flutter

Ever heard a really bad imitation Scottish accent? With lots of RRR rolling? Ever done one? Then you can flutter tongue.
Flutter tonguing isn't used that often but it turns up more and more as time goes on. It can be found in Jazz, Classical and even Folk music. The rolling of the tongue creates a buzzy, surreal sound that mixes with the clear flute sound in interesting ways. The sound can't be imitated very well by any other technique. And its fun.
(A personal plea; Keep the jokes about this topic clean please! Trust me, we've all heard the dirty jokes before and they get old fast.)

There are two ways to flutter tongue and both relate to rolling Rs. Really, both are extremely fast and repeated tongue strikes that don't stop the note or air stream. This is not a muscle controlled action; the tongue is close enough to the roof of the mouth that the air stream causes it to vibrate like a reed on a clarinet and this creates the buzzing or rolled R sound.
The preferred technique (for flute) uses the tip of the tongue. Put the tongue behind your front teeth and let it "bounce" off the roof of your mouth as you exhale, like a rolled R without vocalizing. (This is the same spot you place your tongue for a regular single tongued note-the "ta" or "da" tongue.) It is sort of like turning your tongue into a mini jack-hammer. The trick is learning to maintain your embouchure while doing this.
The other method uses the back of the tongue or the uvula R roll, the way Rs are rolled in French. Its not that different from the other one, just further back in the mouth. This is the spot you use for the "ka" or "ga" sound when double tonguing. Just faster. For the record, flutter tonguing is "easiest" for flute and brass instruments but the reed instruments can flutter too (yes, even oboes though that may count as cruel and unusual punishment.) It is however much easier for reed players to use the second method of flutter tonguing!
If you can't do one, try the other. The first method tends to be more obvious sounding and the second one has a softer buzz but either one works. If you can do both, you end up with a choice of sounds for flutter tonguing. Always a plus.
Once you get the hang of it, its actually kind of entertaining to do although having to switch it on and off at just the right moment can take some practice. Often, flutter tonguing is used on one or two notes though they may be long held notes that make your mouth feel odd after awhile. Sometimes the flutter is meant to last over several notes or used with faster passages. With luck, it will be clearly marked when to start and stop.

So how is this marked in music? Unfortunately, its not very consistent. Part of the reason is that, just like all terms in music, different languages use different words. Flatterzunge, frullato, coupe de lange roule, tremolo dental, vibrata linguale are just some of the different names used for flutter tonguing.
Most flute players agree that it SHOULD be marked with a fl, flt, flz or fltz and sometimes frull. or flutter above the note followed by a squiggly line (a trill mark) to show how long to flutter.
flutter tongue
This is clear, noticeable and informative so of course many composers don't use it.
The next most recognized marking is to write fl or flutter above the note with diagonal lines slashing the stem of the note (a string tremolo mark.) This works but it can be confused with subdivision markings especially since composers often leave out the the fl and only use the slashes or write flutter once and never again even when the fluttered notes are mixed with regular notes. I recently played a piece that used this mark for flutter tonguing right after using subdivision marks for actual subdivisions and then proceeded to switch back and forth from subdivisions to flutter tonguing for two lines. It took me 4 times through the piece to figure out what was happening where.
Some composers simply write FL or flutter above the note with no other marking and leave you to guess how long you have to keep your tongue buzzing. Quite frustrating.
And some composers switch between all these marks just to make sure the flute section is paying attention. These are the composers I want to track down and send to remedial composition classes!
Finally, other composers make up their own marking I guess because they couldn't be bothered to look it up. As long as they explain their invented mark clearly and they use the same mark for the whole piece, I don't mind this. Consistency makes up for a lot!