Cut Time (and how it’s different from common time)

In today’s episode we’re going to talk about something seemingly simple – cut time. We haven’t talked about time signatures in a good long while on this channel (see our videos on 4/4, ¾, and 6/8), so I figured now was a good time to tackle this oft-confusing time signature.

We’ll look at what cut time is and when it’s used – and why it’s used. I’m going to try to keep this video short and straight to the point, so let’s get started!

What is cut time?

What is cut time?

Cut time is 2/2 time (also known as alla breve). If you remember our discussions on time signatures, the top number is how many beats are in a bar, and the bottom number is the type of beat.

For example, in common time (4/4), there are four quarter beats per bar.

In 2/4 time, there are two quarter beats per bar.

But in 2/2 time – cut time – there are two half beats per bar.

Where this gets confusing to people is that, if you remember fractions from math class, 2/2 is mathematically equivalent to 4/4. Two half beats per bar means the same thing as four quarter beats per bar.

The difference between cut time and common time

So what’s the difference between cut time and common time?

First of all, you can tell them apart by the vertical line:

Where the vertical line “c”, probably obviously, represents cut time – and the regular “c” is for common time.

Aside from that, one big difference between the two is the pulse.

The is the pulse for 4/4 time:

1 2 3 4

S w M w

(strong – weak – medium – weak)

As with any time signature, the first beat per bar is strongest. In 4/4 time, the third beat isn’t quite as strong as the first, but it’s still stronger than beat 2 and 4 (listen to the video for a demonstration).

In cut time, our pulse only goes up to 2, instead of up to 4.

1 2

S w

You’re alternating a strong beat with a weak beat, which changes the flavor a little. (Listen to the video for a demonstration).

So in some ways, cut time is more similar to 2/4 time, since the pulse is the same (even though mathematically it’s more like 4/4).

When is cut time used?

Cut time is most often used nowadays for something that’s a really fast tempo.

If you’re in 4/4 and you’re trying to play, say, Can-Can, you’re going to have to turn the metronome up really fast (something like 160 BPM). But if Can-Can was played with a 2/2 pulse (which, by the way, it is), your metronome would more effectively be set at 80 BPM – much easier to listen to and follow along.

Marches are probably the most common use of cut time, due to their fast tempo and two-beat pulse.

Cut time usage

One big reason composers choose to use cut time is to make the music visually easier to read when playing at a faster tempo. Wikipedia actually has an excellent example of this so I can show you what I mean:

What you’re looking at is literally the same thing. Cut time is easier to read for a couple reasons – the beats are smaller and thus easier to read, and the frequent barline divisions also make it easier to read. It wouldn’t matter so much if you were playing a slow piece, but that ease of reading really makes a difference when you’re going at a clip.

The broken circle

One thing that I find really interesting about common and cut time is that the “c” doesn’t actually represent “cut” or “common”, even though both words start with C. That isn’t how music generally works, because the comparison would be meaningless to, say, musicians in Japan or Italy.

Since music notation originates in the church, ¾ time (or any triple meter) was considered perfect, because of it’s comparison to the Christian Holy Trinity. So ¾ time would have been represented by a circle (which isn’t used anymore).

Since triple meter was seen as sacred, duple meter was seen as imperfect – hence the “c” actually represents a broken circle.

Neat, eh?

Conclusion

There’s a bit of a blurred line between time signatures. If you were to say to me, “4/4 and 2/2 are basically the same”, my reply might be, “yes, but…”. Mathematically, yes. But not so much musically. They’re not drastically different and you’re not usually going to discern the two by listening, but there are some theoretical differences.

Hope you enjoyed this discussion, and I’ll catch you in the next video!

Xo,

Allysia