The prevalence of 4/4 in popular music

Impact's music editor Hannah Pickard deconstructs one of pop music's most noticeable characteristics.

Let’s do a test. Open up your favourite music streaming app, put on a pop album you like, or turn on the radio and tune it until you hear some popular music. What do you notice about it? How does the music feel? Is it easy to dance to? Does it sound happy, angry, relaxing, sad, or another feeling entirely? 

Although the sounds of different popular songs are diverse, there seems to be one characteristic that is quite consistent throughout the charts today: the use of the time signature 4/4. (I bet your random song conforms to this characteristic too!)

“Songwriters perhaps do not even realise they are writing in this time signature, focussing instead on melody and lyrics.”

A time signature is “a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are contained in each bar, and which note value is equivalent to a beat”. In other words, a time signature indicates how many beats are in a bar. The top number of a time signature portrays how many beats are in one bar. The lower number indicates which note values are used in the bar (2 = minims (h)), 4 = crotchets (q), 8 = quavers (e)). With 4/4, then, there are four crotchet beats per bar.

I analysed the seventeen Official Chart No.1s of 2018, and found that ALL of them were in 4/4. Why do so many musicians write music in this time signature? Because our ears are so used to hearing 4/4, songwriters perhaps do not even realise they are writing in this time signature, focussing instead on melody and lyrics (I know that I am victim to this!). Additionally, 4/4 is easy to dance to because of the even number of beats in a bar, unlike 5/4, which can be disorientating and difficult to bop along to.

There are, however, many songs in the charts that do not conform to 4/4. Billie Eilish has released some excellent music in the past few months, including ‘when the party’s over’ and ‘bury a friend’. The former song is in 3/4 (arguably 6/4, but I’m not going to get into that discussion here!), whilst ‘bury a friend’ has a groovy 12/8 time signature. 

Many rock and indie songs have interesting time signatures. ‘Do You Want It All’ by Two Door Cinema Club utilises a quirky 7/4 time signature, as does ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd. ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers fluctuates between 3/4 and 4/4, yet the song doesn’t feel jerky or unsettling – it works perfectly to fit the mood of the song. 

On a last note (har har!), I couldn’t possibly write an article on time signatures without the mention of Jacob Collier. He might be quite arrogant and pretentious, but he does know how to manipulate harmony and time signatures. If you want to boggle your mind, go and give him a listen. You’ll never think about 4/4 in the same way again! 

Hannah Pickard

Featured Image courtesy of Will Powell via Flickr.

Image use licence here.

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