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The Anderson Files: Demystifying Cut Time in Performing Music



Cut time is a source of confusion for many musicians. What exactly does it mean and how do you apply it?

Too often cut time is thought of as having two beats in a measure. There are not two beats in a measure of cut time – there are four beats in a measure of cut time. So what makes this different than common time i.e. four beats in the measure

The confusion all centers on understanding the difference between the concepts of beats and pulses. It certainly doesn’t help that virtually everyone who counts off cut time does so with a 1 – 2  1 – 2 count. The confusion about the beats is understandable, especially with this misleading counting convention. The 1 -2  1-2 is accounting for the two pulses in the measure, not two beats.

In traditional common time, each beat is represented by a foot tap.

Four beats in a measure – four taps of the foot. If you don’t tap your foot, think of a metronome which clicks on each of the four beats.

When you play in cut time, the beat will feel slower but it’s an illusion. The beat itself is exactly the same speed as it was in common time. It’s your foot or the pulse that’s moving half as fast.

Think of a measure of four in two equal halves. Beats one and two represent the first half of the measure and beats three and four represent the second half of the measure. The first half of the measure gets the first tap or click. The second half of the measure gets the second tap or click – two pulses to the measure.

Here’s a simple example: Four quarter notes in a measure of common time. The foot tap or click occurs on each quarter note. If the quarter notes were to be read in cut time, the foot would now tap on beats one and three. The speed of the quarter notes would remain the same as if being read in common time.

Since the foot now taps on beats one and three, the “feel” of cut time is established. Although I’ve never heard anyone do it, I always felt that the count off for cut time should be 1 – 3  1 – 3, not 1 – 2  1 – 2.

When is cut time used?

Broadway music, sambas, polkas, bluegrass, classical, many ethnic forms and anytime the tempo gets so fast that it would be unwieldy to count and tap in four. In the case of a runaway tempo, the cut time is used as a convenience, sometimes a self-defense.  In all the other situations, it is intended to produce a definite and distinctive feel.

When chords are being played in cut time on piano, the root is played on the left hand on beat one, the chord on the right hand on beat two, the fifth on the left hand on beat three and the chord on the right hand on beat four. The bass notes on beat one and on beat three create a strong stress that is responsible for the “two” feel of cut time. A guitar player hits a bass note on one,  a chord on two, an alternate bass note on three and a chord on four. These are all downstrokes and produce the characteristic “Boom – Chuck’ sound. These piano and guitar applications are both in the accompaniment role – not the reading melody role.

Cut time is not as difficult as it seems.

Play melodies in four and then in cut time so that you can see and feel the difference and similarities between them. You’ll find that they’re not as incompatible or as difficult as you feared!

Check out other advice and lessons from Chuck Anderson.

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