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Guided listening: “I Say a Little Prayer”.

When a song starts in 4/4 – meaning 4 quarter-note beats in a single bar – you can generally expect that time signature to last for the duration of the song. But what about when it doesn’t? Can time signatures change?

Changing up the groove

When we talk about the mechanics of time signatures, we often stick with the idea of simple fixed ones, which don’t really change. In most pieces of music you hear on the radio, or even within Melodics, that is mostly true – but not always!

The idea of changing time signatures is definitely not a new idea. In fact, in orchestral music, changing time signatures have existed for hundreds of years. The more complex your musical idea is, the more likely you are to want to change up the groove, and introduce new patterns and developments in your creative arc.

When you count it out in your head, 5/4 (five quarter-notes per bar) makes very different grouping patterns than 4/4. By grouping patterns, we mean how the rhythms within a time signature are organized. Within a 5/4 bar, imagine how you could make smaller rhythmic groups which add to 5. It could it a 2 beat pattern, followed by a 3 beat one. Or 3 then 2… or even 2, plus 2, plus 1. Each time, the beat groups add to 5, but have a slightly different feel.

This means, that even within a time signature, the feel or groove of a rhythm can change given how it’s grouped. Sometimes composers/producers will actually write out 4+1/4 instead of 5/4 to get their point across. In other cases, sometimes your idea requires a whole new time signature.

Aretha Franklin - “I Say a Little Prayer”.

In this timeless classic, by Aretha Franklin, try tapping your foot to the pulse. The song flows and feels natural, but there’s a slight hitch in the opening few measures. That little hitch you feel, is actually a complete change in time signature! In the beginning, we’re in 4/4 for two bars before changing to 6/4. And check out the incredible chorus! Can you figure out when the time signatures change? Moving from one time signature to another can be a powerful tool in your musical arsenal while allowing you to be more flexible as a player, and more creative as a creator.

In this song Aretha Franklin demonstrates how graceful and elegant you can sound when changing time signatures. The music flows naturally, but the beat groupings aren’t totally symmetrical. Let’s take a closer look at when these changes take place to see how they affect the song.

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