Terry Shaw's
MusicPotential logo
716 North 100 East    |    Price, Utah 84501    |    (435) 637-4604    |    Contact Us

Skip Navigation Links.

Specialized Lessons
Time Organization

There are two categories of time organization for songs. The first is what I refer to as "micro" timing, keeping track of individual beats and measures. The second is "macro" timing, that is, the "big picture" or overall layout of the chord progressions that make up a song. Memorizing chord progressions is a crucial musical skill for playing with other musicians. Usually this skill is learned slowly over many years of playing experience. However, this chapter will provide insight into achieving this skill quickly with some unique explanations and techniques. The following is an integrated hierarchy of time measurement, from micro- -time to macro-time.

 BEAT:  single unit of time
 MEASURE:  group of beats
 SECTION:  group of measures
 PROGRESSION:  group of sections
 SONG:  one or more progressions


SONGS contain PROGRESSIONS which contain SECTIONS which contain MEASURES which contain BEATS. Thorough explanations are given for each of these concepts below.


A beat is the smallest unit of time. Beats are the steady pulse of a song
and can be observed by any listener, even the non-musician. The speed of the beat is known as tempo . The duration of a beat may range from slow tempo (approximately 60 beats per minute) to very fast tempo (240 bpm or more).


Because every song contains too many beats to keep track of individually
they are grouped into measures with a time signature indicating the grouping. The numerator (first number) indicates the number of beats per measure. The denominator (second number) indicates which type of note is used as the increment of measurement. The following explains the most common group- ings of beats.


Most songs are created from measures that contain four beats. This time
signature is indicated as 4/4, or four quarter notes per measure. The following shows how 4/4 time can be conceptualized and verbalized (counted).

   1  2  3  4
  1  2  3  4    . . .

2/4 time (two quarter-note beats per measure) sounds like 4/4 time but
is usually used in slow songs where the duration of the quarter notes is longer than usual. 2/4 is also common in marches where there is a very pronounced 1-2 1-2 feel. (Left-right-left-right!)

   1    2
  1   2     . . .


3/4 is commonly known as waltz time. There are three quarter notes per
measure with emphasis on the first beat. Common waltzes you have probably heard are Amazing Grace and Clementine .

   1  2  3
  1  2  3    . . .


6/8 (six eighth notes per measure) has both the feel of threes and twos
(3 x 2 = 6) and may be counted in two different ways. (Emphasis is on beats one and four.) Common songs in 6/8 are House Of The Rising Sun (slow) and Irish Washerwoman (fast).

  1  2  3    4  5  6   . . .
  or      1  2  3    2  2  3   . . .

You may encounter time signatures other than those described above
(9/8, 5/4, 7/8, etc.) especially if you get involved in playing jazz. However, this chapter will only be concerned with common time signatures.


EXERCISE: Measures
Turn on the radio and find a song. Listen to determine the time signature.
Then find other songs in any style of music and do the same.

SECTION Measures provide one level of organization. However, most songs will contain far too many measures to keep track of individually so further organ- ization is needed. A section * is a group of measures. Sections will most often contain four measures. An effective way to learn to think in sections is to count in the following manner, giving special attention to the first beat of each measure. (These are tongue twisters--keep repeating them until they become effortless.)

  4/4:  1 2 3 4 2 2 3 4   3 2 3 4  4 2 3 4
  2/4:  1 2 2 2  3 2  4 2
  3/4:  1 2 3 2 2 3  3 2 3  4 2 3
  6/8:  1 2 3 4 5 6 2 2 3 4 5 6  3 2 3 4 5 6  4 2 3 4 5 6

* This is my own terminology as there is no official term for this concept. In music, the word "section" is sometimes used indiscriminately to refer to a part of a song such as a verse, chorus, interlude, intro, etc. However, in this chapter, section means a group of measures. It is this concept of a section that will accelerate the song memorization process. EXERCISE: Sections While listening to any music (recorded, radio, live, etc.) determine the time signature then practice counting four-measure sections in the above manner. (This will work with most songs.) PROGRESSION A progression is a group of sections. The chordal background of songs may be created by one or more progressions which are then repeated. The following is the progression for Mary Had A Little Lamb using the number system for chords. (If you want an explanation of the number system click on the link) It contains two sections, 8 measures total.

 1   2    3    4
 2   2    3   4
  3 2 3 4   4 2 3 4
 1    /    /    /
 1    /    /   /
 1    /   /   /
  1    /    /   /
Mar-y  had  a
 lit-tle  lamb
 lit-tle  lamb
 lit-tle   lamb


 1   2    3    4
 2   2    3     4
 3          2     3    4
 4  2  3  4
 1    /    /    /
 1    /    /     /
 1          /      /    /
  1  /  /  /
Mar-y  had  a
 lit-tle lamb it's
 fleece was white as
  snow . . .

In Mary Had A Little Lamb , as in other songs, the four-measure sections sections reinforce the rhythmic symmetry of the lyrics. BLOCK FORM Visualizing progressions is made simple by organizing them in block form , an "aerial view" of the chord progression. Each chord symbol (number) repre- sents one measure. (Unless otherwise indicated assume there are four beats per measure.) MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB

 1  1 5  1
 1  1  5  1


Visualizing block form is an effective way to memorize chord progressions. Memorization can also be aided by the observation of similarities and differences . (In Mary both sections of the progression are identical.) Let's observe a more complicated song. Jingle Bells is made up of two progres- sions, sixteen measures for the verse and sixteen measures for the chorus. What are the similarities and differences? (Hint: Observe 8-measure pieces.) JINGLE BELLS

 (verse)  1  1  1  4
   4  5  5  1
   1  1
   4  5  5  1

 (chorus)  1  1  1  1
   4  1  2  5
   1  1
   4  1  5  1


NOTE: The average music listener pays attention to the melody and beat which are the obvious tip of the iceberg. However, most of the iceberg is the chord progression which creates the overall structure of the song (and also contains ingredients for the melody, harmony, and improvisation). Sometimes a measure will contain two chords. When this occurs it usually divides the measure in half, two beats per chord. I Shot The Sheriff, a minor key song by Bob Marley, contains split-measures in the verse. I SHOT THE SHERIFF

 (chorus)  1m  1m  4m  1m
   1m  1m  4m  1m

 (verse)  6-5m  1m  6-5m  1m
   6-5m  1m  6-5m  1m
   6-5m  1m  6-5m  1m


(How many similarities and differences can you find?)

CROOKED SECTIONS Although it is the norm not all songs contain evenly structured sections Sometimes there will be more or less than four measures in a section. There are also songs that contain half or partial measures and songs that change time signatures. (Don't try to dance to them!) However, these can still be charted in block form with special attention given to the particulars.

EXERCISE: Progressions This website contains hundreds of songs in various styles. Almost all of the chord progressions are written in block form using the number system for chords. Download as many as you like and practice playing them in keys of your choice. Take any songs you already know and count out each section. Then chart the progressions in block form using the number system.