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Time signature (also known as meter signature) is a measurement (not a measure) studied by all musicians who actually read sheet music. The remaining 90% just play from memory, joking with one another during performances and pointing out the member of the audience over to the left who has her tits out.
There is no reason, after all, that Time needs a signature. There are no papers that Time has to sign; when the Time comes, he simply brings the Grim Reaper with him, and Time is up.
No one claims credit for inventing time signatures on sheet music. In the 14th through 16th centuries, marks called menstrual notation appeared on sheet music. These marks were usually remedied by donning a new pair of underwear.
Naturally, to confuse the peasants, these notations were described in Latin. Music could be written in the perforrectum or suffer a prolatio imperfecta or "women's disease," especially when there were two of them with dots in the center.
The time signatures we recognize in the modern era were invented by a Puritan obsessed with modesty, and with a phobia of all numbers that are not multiples of two. Most time signatures use no numbers that are not multiples of two. Mathematicians refer to them as improper fractions, but musicians just don't care.
Tchaikovsky, however — concerned as always with propriety — waltzed in and wrote music in 3/4 time, defying orthodoxy exactly as Galileo had done before and Alfred E. Neuman would do centuries later. His penniless musical heirs include Yes, for whom every song needs at least a snippet in 5/4 or 7/4, just so that they can tour 30 cities in 27 days without feeling exploited by their record label.
All music uses these time signatures except Rap, Hip Hop, Ringo Starr, and that drummer in System of a Down. Rap and Hip Hop artists do whatever it is that they do in something like 1/1 time (with pauses for especially deep thoughts). They believe that the time signatures on the sheet music are rules laid down by dead white men. Eminem sings in 1/1 time, although his backing musicians do not play in it.
George W. Bush, who claimed to have plenty of "the kids' music" on his iPod, thought that everyone should use time signatures (hoping for "no child left behind") and called the opposing view the "racism of low expectations." John Kerry, running against Bush in 2004, stated that, "I'm fascinated by rap and hip-hop." Fatefully, he would go on to say that he actually voted for the two styles, before he voted against them.
How to read a time signature
Time signatures are basically just fractions.
- The number on top is the numerator, the same as in coin collecting.
- The number on the bottom is the denominator, like Baptist or Unitarian-Universalist.
The numerator tells you how much music you should play, and the denominator tells you how long you have to play it.
Common time and cut time
Common time means 4/4, which is a peculiar way to write 1. This is why all the music that reaches Number 1 in the charts is in 4/4 time.
Cut time means 2/4. It is the same thing as common time, but twice as fast. Musicians play cut time in the following cases:
- A kid sister who pranks you by screwing with the metronome
- Recitals when you realize your parents have already left, that one of them is texting, or that you shouldn't have had that second glass of milk.
In other words, you can read music in 4/4, play it in 2/4, and claim you were playing it in 4/4 all along, you simply really had to go.
Time signatures such as 2½/4 are damned peculiar. They signify that you have left the Common Market and have entered the world of jazz. If you look closely at the sheet music, you will see that some of the eyes on the tadpoles staring back at you have turned into little X's. The same as in comic books, that means that the piece of music is already dead.