Reels 2/2 or 4/4? Arghhh, Not again!
Yes, I know I should let this go but much has been said or implied that needs clarification. I am NOT a theorist advocating “dots over ear”. I learned like many of you to play by ear long before I even knew you could write music down as notation. It was only when I began writing tunes that I decided to figure out “how” to convey a tune through notation. Notation can only approximate the basics of a tune but if one is familiar with the genre, (in this case ITM,) and can read notation, then one should be able to play a fair rendition of the tune from the notation. (That’s in no way meant to denigrate learning by ear on your own.) So here are a few basics which IMHO are important.
Time signature: I’ll stick with simple meters here, reels and hornpipes, polkas (jigs are compound meter so I’ll leave them out of the discussion). The two numbers in a time sig tell you two things: (1) how many beats per bar, (top number,) and (2) what kind of note gets the beat, (bottom number,)… period. So a tune notated in 4/4 time gets four beats per bar, with each beat falling on a ¼-note (crotchet.) A tune in 2/4 time (polka,) gets two beats per bar with each beat on a ¼-note. A tune in 2/2 time gets two beats per bar with each beat falling on a ½-note.
What does this mean for reels notated in 2/2 (cut-time) vs. 4/4? As Jim mentioned in an earlier thread, if you run it thru your software, not much. There are exactly the same number of 1/8-notes (quavers,) in a bar of 2/2 as 4/4… EIGHT! So what’s the diff? In 4/4, each PAIR of quavers gets a beat. In 2/2, each set of FOUR quavers get a beat. When properly notated this is indicated by “beaming” four quavers together in 2/2 while beaming pairs of quavers in 4/4. When playing reels of course you’re free to place emphasis wherever you want, (or none at all if you prefer the “metronomic” sound.) Sometimes a slower reel or hornpipe may sound better at 4 beats to the bar, but if you want to develop speed youll have it easier thinking 2/2 (IMO).
To illustrate, I’ve taken a snippet from “Maid Behind the Bar” played at our St Patrick’s day 2014 session and added “claps” to show the differences I’ve alluded to:
(1) Slowed down to 75% speed, 2/2 time, clap 2/bar (87 BPM): https://www.dropbox.com/s/n9nx9nj5ozbv5ba/MBB%202-2%2075%25.mp3
(2) Slowed down to 75% speed, 4/4 time, clap 4/bar (194 BPM): https://www.dropbox.com/s/1pkd2kqmo3f9ftc/MBB%204-4%2075%25.mp3
(3) Played at full speed, 2/2 time, clap 2/bar (117 BPM): (The way I feel it.) https://www.dropbox.com/s/vh1tr6a4kmznyzd/MBB%202-2.mp3
(4) Played at full speed, 4/4 time, clap 4/bar (234 BPM): (Sounds too busy IMO) https://www.dropbox.com/s/0ald8vmba6bfzxw/MBB%204-4.mp3
Notice that when beat in 4/4 time at a slower speed, clip (2), it doesn’t sound too bad. When you get up at speed though, clip (4), trying to beat at 234 BPM is distracting. Sometimes students who begin learning tunes by tapping four to the bar will lose it completely when coming up to speed. I encourage students to start slowly but tap it 2/bar so they’ll have less trouble getting in the grove at speed. If you play before an audience they will often fall into the “right” time immediately clapping along. Oh, if you want to hear the whole tune played at speed here’s the link. How would you clap along?
One last point. How you play with others is really all that matters; how you blend your music with theirs to make the “magic”. You’re certainly free to make whatever noises you want in the privacy of your kitchen but if you want to play with others there are certain basics your fellow musicians will expect you to bring to the table. And to play well, you must play with others.
I like Oirish’s post on “synchronizing 32 metronomes.” Making music with others is like that. Everyone comes with slightly different takes on a tune but a few bars in “et voila”, you’re in the groove!