The Difference Between 2/4 and 4/4 Time Signatures – Music Theory

– Hi, I’m Gareth. And in this video I’m going to answer a question that a lot of people have asked us. Fundamental this, “What is the difference between 2/4 and 4/4?” Okay well let’s have a think about time signatures for a brief moment. As many people will know the upper number in a time signature, in this case the two or in this case the four, the upper number tells you how many beats there are in a bar. And the bottom number tells you what kind of beats they are. So for now if you’re happy to accept that four at the bottom means the beats are crotchets or quarter notes, if you’ve learnt it in that system. Then 2/4 means there are two crotchet beats in a bar.

Two quarter note beats in a bar. 4/4 means that there are four crotchet beats in a bar, or four quarter note beats in a bar. So, why might people be asking what the difference is because it’s pretty obvious isn’t it, really? This one’s got two beats in a bar that one’s got four beats in a bar. But this is what lies behind the question. I can play a piece of music and it would sound more or less the same whether it’s in 2/4 time or 4/4 time. So if I play this I could think One Two One Two One Two One Two Or I could think, One Two Three Four One Two Three Four Because it’s possible to count it either way, isn’t it? So if I notate that rhythm in 2/4 the rhythm I have just played goes like this.

It’s not a complicated rhythm. But that’s what I’ve just played. And there’s the end of it. So, you can see exactly where these two beats are coming. There’s the first, there’s the second, there’s the first, there’s the second, there’s the first, this one is split into these two eighth notes, two quavers. And on the last note I’ve got two beats. But of course I can write the same thing in 4/4. So let’s put the same rhythm down. So this time it looks like this. Exactly as it did before, but you’ll notice we haven’t got as many bar lines. And why is that? Because now we’ve got four beats in each bar.

So you can see how that works. So, really the sound of it, at face value, is no different. The rhythm’s just the same, it doesn’t change the speed. So how would you know what the difference is between the 2/4 and the 4/4? Well it boils down to this, it’s a question of accentuation. Because in music we have strong beats and we have weak beats. Or you might say we have stronger beats and weaker beats. In two time we go strong weak strong weak strong weak strong weak Okay? So If I play it in 2/4 time it should sound like this. Strong weak strong weak strong weak strong weak Now I’m over emphasising that, it’s not very subtle is it? But it can be done in a very subtle way so you just feel the first beats of the bar being stronger than the second beats in the bar. It’s one thing that makes music interesting. If you put equal weight on every single beat of the music it tends to sound rather heavy, ponderous stuff. So it’s a good thing to think about when you’re performing music. Actually where do the stresses want to be? So in 2/4 we’re putting the stress on the first beat. We’re using the second beat as a kind of lift onto the next first beat. So we get strong weak, strong weak, actually it’s much more expressive. Now if we’re in four time. Well we’re going to have the same idea that we’re going to put the stress on the first beat of the bar. So I’m going to have a stress there and a stress there. So the difference here is of course, we’ve only got half the number of stresses. Half the number of beat ones in 4/4 that we have in 2/4. There’s also a kind of hierarchy here because in 4/4 time after the first beat the next strongest beat is the third beat. So, if you really get organised in 4/4 time you give us a strong beat on beat number one and then you do something that’s a little bit sort of half strong on beat number three. So you’ve got a sense of second and fourth beats being lighter. So if we just put the emphasis on the first beat for now We get one two three four one two three four That makes it very clear. If I do a little bit of the half stress on three. One two three four one two three four You can feel that we’ve got main stress and a kind of half stress on the third beat. Now that is the subtle difference between 2/4 and 4/4 time. So a composer has to think, “Do I want to have a situation that’s a bit binary? You know, just a strong beat followed by a weak beat for my whole piece. One, two one, two strong, weak strong, weak It will give you a particular kind of music character, wouldn’t it? Or do I want to have fewer of these stronger stresses and have something a little bit more subtle on three as well? One two three four one two three four So you see how that goes. Arguably there’s even a hierarchy that goes a bit further, where you might say that the fourth beat, because it’s the last beat of the bar, is even lighter than the second beat. So you could have a kind of a priority of beats where number one is the strongest, followed by number three, followed by number two, followed by number four. If you want to get in the subtly of it. So rhythmically it doesn’t make any difference, if you count your way through a piece of music that’s in two or four time. They’re pretty interchangeable. But if you listen out for where the stress comes you should be able to make out at least where the first beat is coming. So is it coming every other beat, in which case it’s in two time. Or is it just the first of every four, in which case it’s in four time. So hopefully that explains the answer to the question. In a way, theoretically what is the difference apart from seeing fewer bar lines in 4/4 than in 2/4. Musically, aurally, there is actually quite a fundamental difference and it’s all about the stressing of main beats and being lighter on the weaker beats.

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