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2/4 time vs. 4/4

Discussion in 'Tab, Tips, Theory and Technique' started by davidge1, Jan 11, 2019 at 7:47 PM.

  1. davidge1

    davidge1 Friend of Leo's

    Nov 13, 2006
    We all know a 4/4 rhythm is. And I've always referred to swing and shuffle rhythms as 2/4. But why is that so, when both have the same number of beats per measure and both are counted the same way?
  2. AAT65

    AAT65 Friend of Leo's Silver Supporter

    The difference between 4/4 and 2/4 can be pretty subtle but I don’t recognise your description that they have ‘the same number of beats per measure’ (or bar as I would say).
    2/4 is asking to be counted 1-2, 1-2,... where 4/4 is asking to be counted 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4,... where 3 is a stronger beat than 2 or 4 but not as strong as 1. (Paradoxically of course in pop & rock the snare hits make 2 & 4 seem pretty strong... it’s got a backbeat you can’t lose it, you know...).
    2/4 is often regarded in classical music as a March - that (maybe) helps.
    There’s an interesting set of answers to a similar question on Stack Exchange at
  3. Larry F

    Larry F Doctor of Teleocity Vendor Member

    Nov 5, 2006
    Iowa City, IA
    1 & 2 &
    1 2 3 4

    The 2/4 on top shows that the & of 1 corresponds to beat 2 in the 4/4 below. In both cases, the 1 is the strongest beat in the measure, and the & of 1 in 2/4 and the 2 in 4/4 are equivalent within each time sig. And so on with the other beats and subdivisions. The difference between the two time sigs depends on the tempo of each and which rhythmic value has one beat. A slow 2/4 can be felt as a quicker 4/4, as long as the 8th note gets one beat.

    There are other ways of saying this, and my version is not very good for teaching if the student doesn't know rhythms and time sigs. My way works better with experienced musicians who are trying to decide whether to treat the 8th notes as fast quarters, or the quarter notes as slow eighths. Neither way holds a candle to me sitting across from you with a guitar. Easy to hear and feel, but harder to explain, since some background is needed.
    Wally, mherrcat and 24 track like this.
  4. Sparky2

    Sparky2 Tele-Afflicted

    Apr 15, 2017
    Harvest, Alabama
    Forget it, Jake.

    It's Chinatown.


    drf64 likes this.
  5. Peregrino69

    Peregrino69 Tele-Afflicted Silver Supporter

    Dec 12, 2016
    As @Larry F says, it's tough to explain... even if both sides of the discussion have strong theory background, there's a lot of room for debate :)

    Time signature actually does not translate to beats / bar (measure). It basically translates to "notes / denomination in one bar". And the denomination determines the basic beat.

    So in 2/4 rhythm you have 2 quarter notes in one bar and you count quarter notes 1-2 1-2 Left-right Left-right. In 4/4 you have four quarter notes in one bar, and you count quarter notes 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4. The accents and embellishments (for example accent on 3rd beat) is what makes the feel of the beat. If you're counting 1-&-2-& 1-&-2-& your nominal time signature should actually be 4/8 since you're counting the 8th notes, not quarter notes (room for debate :D).

    Now both 2/4 and 4/4 are straight beats. Swing isn't, it's basically triplets. In a sheet you can indicate it by placing the word "Swing" at the top of the sheet. By default all 8th notes are then handled as triplets, so it's not 1-&-2-&-etc. but 1-&-a-2-&-a-etc. Your base beat is still on quarter notes and counts 1-2-3-4. You can also indicate what notes are to be handled as triplets... for example "Swing 16" gives you a straight beat if you're playing on quarter- and eight notes, but sixteenth notes are swinged.

    There's a lot of confusion when we apply classical music theory to popular music. This is because a lot of things in pop are based on feel of the rhythm or melody, and classical theory is somewhat lacking in the feel department.

    Swing is a good example of this. Strictly speaking "swing" just means that when you have two 8th notes, you don't hit the second one on the beat but swing it a bit behind the beat. How much you delay it is up to you - there is no hard rule that says it MUST be exactly triplets. Although it's beneficial if the band members agree on how much swing exactly you put on the beat :)

    Another is the "blue" notes. Generally we say that in a major scale blues a minor third and minor seventh are "blue" notes. This concept actually comes from piano, where those are the closest estimates you can get, but strictly speaking it's not true. You bend the second or sixth note up somewhat to give it a "blue" feel, but there's no hard rule that says it MUST reach the minor third or seventh.

    The only way to really get this is to just by listening and playing. Like @Larry F says, once you know what it is, it's easy to feel and hear. Still bloody tough to explain :)
    jrblue likes this.
  6. jrblue

    jrblue Tele-Holic

    Nov 14, 2010
    Santa Barbara
    Peregrino has it. In his third paragraph you can see the layout of the accented beats, and how the two time signatures differ. Beyond that, there are all kinds of verbal descriptors that may or may not help, but for my money it all begins with the pattern of emphases, and they are fairly different though not wildly so.
  7. Wally

    Wally Telefied Ad Free Member

    Mar 17, 2003
    Lubbock, TX
    One observation about Perefrino’s explanation. Ime, a triplet would not be counted as 1 & a 2 & a but rather the triplet is spaced evenly across one beat. The ‘e’ and the ‘a’ and in fact the ‘and’ will not ‘see’ a note right onthose subdivisions of the beat. In other words, the count divides the beat into four points but the triplet is not played on the subdivisions....because the beat is divided into three least...that is how I understand it, feel it, and was taught it.
  8. Henry Mars

    Henry Mars Tele-Holic

    Jan 17, 2014
    Bucks Co. PA
    In 2/4 the only accent is on beat 1 so it is 1 2 | 1 2 as indicated in the posts so far.

    In 4/4 there are actually 2 accents a strong accent which is on beat 1 and a weaker accent on beat 3

    so you get this 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 The underline italic indicates this on beat 3.

    The difference is not really all that subtle

    On the other hand it is really when you are playing in cut time (2/2) vs say 4/4 that it can really get confusing.

    I was playing in a concert one time where one the time signatures was 3/2 ..... that can get confusing when you have 3/4 and 4/4 marked on the same score.
  9. nvilletele

    nvilletele Friend of Leo's

    Jul 4, 2008
    I was thinking the same thing, but so long as the “1 & a” is done in triplet time, it still works. But certainly confusing for a reader thinking of it as in “1 e & a”
    Wally likes this.
  10. Wally

    Wally Telefied Ad Free Member

    Mar 17, 2003
    Lubbock, TX
    Using the breakdown of the note....1-e-& explain a three note group that takes place over the span of a two or four subdivision beat is foreign to my understanding of what a triplet is and does. Only one of those notes of the triplet will fall on one of those subdivison of that count.
    Not being formally trained, sometimes I go searching for formal explanations...and sometimes I learn. Today I have learned that a triplet is a form of a tuplet.....
  11. Togman

    Togman Tele-Afflicted

    Apr 28, 2004
    Cambridgeshire, UK
    At the risk of adding more confusion - some people refer to a 6/8 time signature as a 'swing' 2/4.

    You can count 6/8 as 2 beats in the bar, but there are 3 quavers on each beat. so you get 123 456 (or as it's often counted - 123 223). Quavers 1&2 and 4&5 can often be tied to give the swing effect.
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