Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 13 – time signatures

Kpopalypse is back with another episode of the music theory series!

Way back in episode three of this series I talked a bit about rhythm and mentioned that I would discuss it further later.  “Later” has now arrived, so let’s take a look at time signatures!

Now of course there’s lots of guides about time signatures and timings out there and you could easily just google search “teach me about time signatures you fuckass” and read any of those instead of this post here.  However there’s two reasons why you might want to read this guide instead of anybody else’s:

  1. Other guides don’t tell you the full story and tend to treat all information as if it’s equally important
  2. I will find a way to shoehorn k-pop into this shit if it kills me

So, here’s a time signature.

Time signatures, when they appear in sheet music, are a way to determine the amount of beats in a bar.  They can basically be summed up as follows:

So there you have it, you only need to care about the top number.

For those music theory nerds who find this advice heretical and really must know the reasons for this controversial statement, here’s why we don’t care about the bottom number – the rest of you can skip this.  What the bottom number is supposed to indicate is the length of each beat.  In the case of 4/4, that would be four quarter notes, if the time signature is 4/2 then it would be four half-notes, 4/8 would be four eighth notes, etc etc.  However this is actually useless information, because the length of the beat is also determined by tempo, therefore the bottom number actually means nothing without context.  A bar of 4/4 has four beats in it, and so does a bar of 4/2, so that would suggest that the beats in the bar of 4/2 are twice as long as the beats in the bar of 4/4.  However if the tempo of the song in 4/2 is 200 BPM, and the song in 4/4 is at 80BPM, then the beats in the song with 4/2 actually happen quicker.  On top of this, there’s no law in music that says that there’s any specific instance where you’d use 4/2 over 4/4, and because of the above it’s also impossible to tell when listening to a piece whether it’s in 4/2 and 4/4 because there’s no literal difference, so everybody just uses 4/4 all the time anyway.  The only time where something like 4/2 could actually have a practical use, is that if a song switched between 4/4 and 4/2 during the same song, and maintained the same tempo… which would make sense theoretically, but in such a case, it makes a lot more sense to just keep it simple and just keep using twice the amount of bars of 4/4, because sheet music is meant to read by musicians and musicians don’t like time signature changes if they can be avoided.  Therefore the bottom number is basically useless, in fact this entire paragraph is useless.  (Just so this paragraph has a use, JAV of the month is KTB-047, but SSIS-107 is a very close second and both meet required standards.)

4/4 is the most common time signature, because almost all popular music has four beats in each bar.  I’m just putting Loona’s “Star” here because I like it, I could have put almost any song here.

In fact, did you know that the best k-pop feature track of the 2010s, T-ara’s “Roly Poly”, and the best feature track of the 2020’s so far, which is Loona’s “Star”, are both in 4/4?  Shocking coincidental trufax!

Okay, maybe not such a shocking coincidence, as 4/4 really is that common that almost everything ever created in pop music is in 4/4.  4/4 is in fact so common that on many scores the time signature isn’t even written as 4/4 but is abbreviated simply to a letter “c”, which stands for “common time”.

There is also something called “cut common time”, which is an abbreviation of 2/2 and looks like this:

…but it’s relatively rare, your k-pop faves probably don’t have any songs in 2/2 so I wouldn’t worry about this.  (I know some k-pop fans out there are going to frantically search for a song like this now, because k-pop fans are contrarian like that, but nobody cares so save your energy.)

Apparently four beats per bar is just the way people generally like to hear pop music. The most important thing to note about 4/4 time besides it having four beats, is that when there are beat subdivisions, these are written in multiples of two.  It doesn’t always necessarily sound that “square” when you listen to it, but when the beats are added up, they will add up to four beats (or eight half-beats).  The Loona and T-ara songs are very “squared off” sounding, but not all 4/4 is like that.  Example:

Punch and Chanyeol’s “Stay With Me” is a song in 4/4, but the beats have been split in half (so there’s eight subdivisions of the bar) and then emphasised in a 3-3-2 pattern, however it still adds up to four beats.  I’ve notated an approximation of the bassline in the below video and put extra emphasis on the first note in each subdivision.

The next most popular time signature that you will hear in pop music, is 12/8.  Or maybe two bars of 6/8, side by side.  It’s kind of the same thing, but I’m going to call it 12/8 because that’s the most simple way to conceptualise it from a pop standpoint, as 12/8 has the most similarity to 4/4.  6/8 and 12/8 are both known as “compound” time signatures, which means that when the beats are subdivided, they’re subdivided into three parts, not two parts.  (If the top number is a multiple of three, and the bottom number is eight, it’s a “compound” time signature.  Otherwise, it’s a “simple” time signature.  This is not important information for general practical use, which is why it’s in brackets, and also why I stand by what I wrote earlier about the bottom number in the time signature being useless in practical terms, but I’ve included it here just in case your music theory examiner has a hard-on for asking you about this bullshit, so you can pass a test easier, you’re welcome.)  So what does this sound like?

The slow sections of Stray Kids’ “Side Effects” are in 4/4, but the heavy dance sections are in 12/8.  I’ve captured a notated version of the main 12/8 section below to make it clearer how the bassline relates to the time signature.

The twelve eighth notes are subdivided into four groups of three (which is why the stems are also grouped in threes), therefore 12/8 functions just like 4/4 except each beat is split into three parts, not two.

The next time signature we’ll look at is 3/4 and there aren’t actually very many k-pop songs in this time signature, but Doyoung and Sejeong’s “Star Blossom” is one of them.

3/4 is the same time signature that was used for waltzes back in the day, which was the drug-taking raver dickhead music of the 18th century, and for some reason three beats per bar was preferable for anything back then that had to be danced to, which was probably something to do with how you have to shuffle your feet when performing the waltz dance.  Look at these shambling druggies.

What a pathetic display, get some talent.  Anyway, a lot of people have trouble telling the difference between 3/4 and 6/8.  The answer is that 3/4 is subdivided into twos, with the strong pulse being on the first in the group of two, whereas 6/8, being a compound time signature, is subdivided into threes, with the strong pulse being on the first of each group of three.

Here’s a video as well, which might help, note again that I’ve accented the strong pulses just to make the difference more obvious:

However that’s not quite the whole story here, because what you’ll notice in the notation video, is that even though the rhythms notated are correct, they don’t sound exactly like the other two videos here.  One thing you might have picked up on is that in the waltz video, the three beats aren’t actually played evenly, they tend to rush the second beat a little, starting it a little early, and then drag out the third one.  This has probably got something to do with the waltz dance move where you use that first beat to quickly drag your partner who has taken too much E’s from one part of the dance floor to another.  You may also notice that in the Doyoung and Sejeong video, the weak pulse after each of the three beats is delayed a little, it doesn’t hit at exactly the halfway point between the strong pulses, but more two thirds of the way along.  Both of these “misplacements” of the weak pulse are what is called “swing time” or just “swing”, and this can happen with any type of time signature.  The druggie waltz type of swing is pretty much a classical music relic that is never used these days at all (except when directly mimicking that style), but the second type of swing in the k-pop song is in fact very common.

Swinging your weak beat so it lands at exactly the two-thirds mark instead of the halfway mark is technically changing the time-signature – essentially 4/4 becomes 12/8 (four beats, divided into threes), and 3/4 in the case of the Doyoung and Sejeong song becomes 9/8 (three beats, divided into threes).  However whether people choose to actually change the time signature in practice when writing out the piece is another matter – if the song always swings the weak beat to the two-thirds mark but never plays anything ever at the one-third mark, the songwriter probably isn’t going to be bothered writing out the entire thing in 12/8 because it’s a pain in the ass to do that if you don’t have to and add all those spaces into the score for notes that don’t exist anyway.  Instead they’ll just write it in 4/4 and write “with a swing feel” or words to that effect at the top of the page.

(Music nerd note: while originally associated with jazz, it’s actually theorised that swing feel was very common in the classical era and prior, but was rarely notated on scores for the above reasons.  Since no physical recordings exist from back then, there’s no way to verify this, but it’s the opinion of some scholars for instance that some Bach music was actually designed to be played with a swing feel.  This might just be jazz music academics and classical music academics trolling each other though.)

Here’s Zico and Luna singing “It Was Love” and this one is in 6/8, contrasting this one with the Doyoung and Sejeong song earlier will help give you a feel for the difference between 6/8 and 3/4 in a k-pop ballad context.

Of course, time signatures don’t always have to be as neat as this, it just tends to work out better this way for pop music.  You can get as complicated with beats and subdivisions as you want, it’s just that the further you stray from the basics, the less likely you’re going to end up with something that has commercial appeal.  Which may be just fine, depending on your objective.

Inlayer’s “Mindjack” subdivides the beat in all sorts of ways, and changes tempo frequently – but it never really leaves the domain of 4/4 – the song’s rapid fire rhythmic fills just trick the brain into making you believe that it does.

Jambinai’s “Sun. Tears. Red.” on the other hand sounds simpler, but the entire song is built on a 5/4 pulse, five beats to the bar.  The odd timing feels unsettling to western ears raised on squared-off 4-beat pop music, and this helps create the feeling of rhythmic tension and discomfort that drives the song.  If you’re having trouble conceputalising the 5/4 part, here’s a notated version of the pulse:

You’re generally not going to hear something like a consistent 5/4 pulse in a pure pop song, no matter how weird it gets.  Even notorious “pop experiments” like Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy” are 4/4 throughout.

The speed changes, and the emphasis changes a little (during the fast “bring it back to 140” sections it has the same 3-3-2 pulse as Punch and Chanyeol’s song) but it never changes up the time signature, only the pace.


That’s all for this post!  Hopefully this gives you some insight into time signatures!  Kpopalypse will return!

7 thoughts on “Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 13 – time signatures

  1. Thank you, I find these posts really helpful!

    Quick question if you don’t mind; is the swinging the weak beat what is going on in Gfriend’s Apple? I’ve seen some discrepancies online about whether it should be notated as 12/8 or 4/4. It’s strange because I can clearly hear the guitar riff as 12/8 but I can’t seem to hear the vocal melody as anything but a straight 4/4, and I’m definitely not at a level where I can hear both parts at once.

    • I would call Apple 12/8. You could note it as 4/4 and write ‘swing feel’ if you wanted but the problem with doing that is then you have to manually insert triplets everywhere because a great deal of the song’s vocal and bassline does in fact use all three of the three rhythmic subdivisions of each beat. So if you go with 4/4 you end up with a messy as shit looking page of music. I think 12/8 is better for ease of reading comprehension.

  2. No polyrhythmic references? The National’s Fake Empire on piano kinda melts my brain. Hard to get 3/4 on one hand and 4/4 on the other without just saying ‘fuck dat’, throwing the sheet ona ground and learning it by ear.

  3. Pingback: Kpopalypse roundup – new k-pop releases 23/8/2021 | KPOPALYPSE

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