When you are learning how to transfer your song to sheet music, one of the first lessons is timing. As a songwriter, you can write a song without playing an instrument and even without knowing how to write sheet music, but if you’re wanting it down on paper, you will need to have at least a working knowledge of a few music basics.
One of those basics is timing. The timing of notes on sheet music can make or break a song. When someone hasn’t yet heard the song performed, your sheet music is all they have to figure out how it sounds. So if the timing is off and doesn’t match the correct beats for the time signature, it can affect how the overall song is viewed (and played) by others.
Determining Your Song’s Time Signature
Before you can write the timing of a song, you need to know what time signature (aka meter signature) you will be using. Most typical songs use the Common Time Signature of 4/4, but more complicated compositions, as in classical music, tend to use a variety of complex time signatures from 2/4 to 11/16.
To determine the time signature for your song, you can simply tap your foot and count the beats per measure. Once you get the hang of it, this part is fairly easy. When using the “toe tapping” method, your foot will most likely tap on the strong and medium beats, which is discussed more in the next section on beat stresses.
According to wikiHow, you can also calculate the time signature by counting on your fingers. “When the melody or rhythm starts, start counting. Every beat, add a finger until the melody starts over, which is when you start at one again. Chances are, the number is 4 or 8, the most commonly used time signature. Whatever number is the one you end up with before it starts over is the top number on the fraction of the time signature.”
Understanding Beat Stresses for Song Timing
A good way to learn how to write the timing of a song is by paying attention to beat stresses. The first beat or count of a measure should always be the first “stress,” as it is the strongest beat in the measure, and it’s the one where the most emphasis is placed. When counting common time signature in a song like “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” the first stress is on the first syllable of Mary in the opening line. Click to view the following image.
Notice how the first count of every measure is a strong stress, the second is weak, the third is medium, and the fourth is weak. This rule never changes. If a song is written in 4/4, it must follow the strong-weak-medium-weak stresses. Compound signatures (i.e., 3/4 and 6/8) must follow a strong-weak-weak pattern. If it doesn’t, the timing is wrong.
When writing the timing for your own song, always make sure the first note of every measure follows this pattern and starts out with a strong stress.
Using a Pickup Measure
The only exception to the above rule is using a pickup measure. Pickup measures are shortened measures used at the beginning of a song when the song starts on a weak beat.
“Often, a piece of music does not begin on the strongest downbeat,” Catherine Schmidt-Jones writes on Connexions. “Instead, the strong beat that people like to count as ‘one’ (the beginning of a measure), happens on the second or third note, or even later. In this case, the first measure may be a full measure that begins with some rests. But often the first measure is simply not a full measure. This shortened first measure is called a pickup measure.”
When your song doesn’t begin on a strong beat, you will need to include a pickup measure at the start of your sheet music. If “Mary Had A Little Lamb” had begun with another word ahead of the main phrase, a pickup measure would have been added and it would look similar to this:
In this image, also take note of the last measure, which ends in 3 counts rather than 4. This is due to the pickup measure of 1. When a pickup measure is used, the first and final measure of a song should equal one full measure.
There are obviously so many more lessons in music timing, such as understanding 6/8 time and the different types of time signatures, but this list is a good starting point.
When you learn the correct way of writing a song’s time on sheet music, you will find that if you start out wrong, the entire song will be wrong. But when you start out right, the entire song will be right.
Now that you know about time signatures, read about how to determine the key signature of a song.