A tune with a time signature of 4/4 (also known as "common time") means that there are four beats in every bar, and a quarter note gets each beat. Thus, the upper number indicates the number of beats, and the lower number designates which note value gets each beat. Some 4/4 marches are simple and straightforward to play, but others can seem daunting with their complexity.
It is important to understand that the quarter note is the principal note value for all Western music. A quarter note can be further divided into two eighth notes. An eighth note can be further divided evenly into two sixteenth notes. And a sixteenth note can be divided once again into two thirty-second notes, which for practical purposes is the shortest note value written in pipe music. Going in the opposite direction, two quarter notes can be combined into a half-note, and four quarter notes can be combined to make one full note, or whole note. The duration that a note is held can be increased by adding a “dot” to it, which mathematically adds one-half of its original value. The following examples might help to visualize the different notes that can go into a 4/4 march:
Bar 1 in the following figure contains four straightforward quarter notes. If one sets a metronome, say to 60 beats per minute, and looks only at the first bar, one would count each beat as “one” on the first click, “two” on the second click, and so on, until all four beats are played.
The second bar in Figure 1 shows a dotted half note, along with a quarter note. We now know that a dot adds one half of the note’s value. Thus, we have the half note (two quarter notes) plus half the dotted note’s value (one quarter note), we now have “3 quarter notes” all represented by a dotted half note. When listening to a metronome, a dotted half note would be held for a duration of three clicks (one, two, three) before playing the fourth and final beat of the bar. Bar 3 shows two individual half notes. Knowing that a half note is composed of two quarter notes, each half note would be held for two clicks of the metronome. Finally, a whole note is shown in the fourth bar of Figure 1. A whole note is held for what seems like an eternity, for a full count of one, two, three, four, all on a single note of melody.
Now, instead of increasing a quarter note’s value, as shown above, let’s further divide a quarter note. Figure 2 shows some examples.
In the first bar, we can see four groups of eighth notes. But remember, there are only four beats in that bar because two adjacent eighth notes make up a quarter note in total value. The rhythm is counted as “1 and 2 and 3 and 4”, with each verbalized “number” representing the “downbeat”, and the “&” representing the upbeat, also known as the off-beat. Think of the downbeat as when your foot hits the floor, and the upbeat when your foot moves up. With the metronome set on 60 beats per minute, say aloud each number as your foot hits the floor, but say the word “and” as your foot lifts, which occurs half way between each click. While in bar 1 there are eight individual notes, there are still only a total of four beats.
Things may appear more complicated in the second bar of Figure 2. In this example, each eighth note has been further divided by two. Now we see a series of sixteenth notes. Each group of notes, however, still represents a total value of a single quarter note. Thus, the first note of each group falls on a click, as there are still only four beats in this bar. Things seem to be played at a much faster tempo because there are more notes played in the same amount of time. But again, using a metronome will clearly help to understand this rhythm, as it has above. When the metronome click occurs, that’s when one says “one”, but the “e & a”, pronounced “ee and uh”, must be sounded before the next click. Remember these note patterns all represent bars of 4/4 music.
Now that some basic music theory is over, let’s turn our attention to some practical examples of the 4/4 time signature. Figure 3 represents the first two bars (also known as a phrase), of the popular 4/4 march, "Murdo’s Wedding".
There are four beats in a bar. Each beat is enclosed in a box for clarity. The beat number is shown below each box. These bars appear a bit more complex because of the added embellishments, but the point here is to recognize that there are only four beats. The notes themselves are either quarter notes, eighth notes, and in case, a half-note (last box). You might try to play this phrase at first by eliminating any embellishment other than a G gracenote for the taorluath and the doublings.