2.2 Melodies in Odd Times

Melodies in 3

Not all songs are in 4, of course. Others are “in 3” (i.e., their time signature is “3/4”) like this one:

[1]   [2]   3     +  a  | 1       2       3     |
            Oh       oh | say     can     you   |
 1     2    3     +  a  | 1       2       3     |
 see        By       the| dawn’s  ear-    ly    |

. . . or this one:

[1]   [2]   3    +   a  | 1       2       3     |
            Hap-     py | birth-  day     to    |
 1     2    3    +   a  | 1       2       3     |
 you        Hap-     py | birth-  day     to    |

“The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday” are both “in 3.” That means there are three beats per measure. You count to 3, over and over, instead of counting to 4.

The same is true of waltzes.

Starting before the Beginning

Not only are “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday,” not in 4, but they don’t even start on the first beat of their first measure. Rather, they start one beat before the first beat, using two “pickup notes.”

[1]   [2]   3     +  a  | 1       2       3     |
            Oh       oh | say     can     you   |
[1]   [2]   3    +   a  | 1       2       3     |
            Hap-     py | birth-  day     to    |

“Pickup notes” happen all over the place. Take the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The words, “With the lights out,” are all on pickup notes that are sung before the chorus’s first measure even begins.

Notes Halfway between Downbeats and Upbeats

But back to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday.” Listen to how formal it sounds if you play the second pickup note (the second part of the “oh,” or the “-py” in “happy”) on the upbeat.

Instead, you should play the second of the pickup notes late — starting halfway between the upbeat and the next downbeat. This is how it should sound:

Downbeats are marked by numbers (1, 2, 3, 4).

1 2 3 4 . . .

The halfway point between downbeats is called the upbeat, and is marked by a “+” sign.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + . . .

The halfway point between an upbeat and the next downbeat has no name, but is labeled “a” (which is pronounced “uh”).

1 + a 2 + a 3 + a 4 + a . . .

“Now,” you may ask, “if there’s a halfway point between an upbeat and the next downbeat, is there a halfway point between a downbeat and the next upbeat?” And the answer is, “yes.”

1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a . . .

The halfway point between a downbeat and the next upbeat is marked by an “e,” which is pronounced “ee” (like in “bee” or “tree”). So, you would read that line, “one ee and uh two ee and uh three ee and uh four ee and uh.”

Dividing Beats into Thirds, not Halves

This is all assuming, of course, that we’re dividing our beats into halves and quarters. When we divide beats into halves, we say we are using a “simple” meter. Not every rhythm does this, however. Many, like those used in Irish jigs and other Celtic music, divide the beats into thirds. When we do that, we say we are using a “compound” meter.

In what follows, if I think the beats should be divided into thirds, rather than halves, I’ll use two “+” signs between beat numbers, like this:

1 + + 2 + + 3 + + 4 + + . . .

You can read this however, you want, but I would suggest saying, “ONE two three TWO two three THREE two three FOUR two three.”

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Featured image by cbaquiran

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