Cut Time: What’s the Point?

Posted on July 2, 2023

 cut time

In my last transcription disaster post, I complained quite a bit about cut time, and how I just don’t understand why you would ever use it to notate a song.

Well, by chance, music theory YouTuber David Bennett made a video called “Songs that use 2/2 time”, which he published about a week after my post.

This video is the latest in David Bennett’s long–running line of “Songs that use ____”, where he looks at a (somewhat) unusual songwriting element, like an odd time signature or one of the modes

One of the centerpiece examples in the video is John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, a song I’ve heard dozens (if not hundreds) of times, and have hitherto never considered to be in cut time. 

To be fair to David, most of the transcriptions I’ve seen of “Country Roads” after the fact put it in cut time. (That being said, most of the transcriptions I’ve seen are in A major, while David writes it in B♭ major, but today let’s split only one hair at a time). 

As part of the demonstration, David writes “Country Roads” in 2/2 and 4/4 to highlight the vague utility of cut time, although they obviously look the same:

David explains that it’s a counting difference: “to indicate to the player where the emphasis of the meter should fall”. But now the whole thing is starting to give me flashbacks to the triplets and sextuplets dilemma I wrote about last year. That being said, this time I’m hard–pressed to find situations where cut time is a superior choice over 4/4 in terms of engraving legibility (indeed, you could consider my DAW argument again). 

When I compare cut time and common time, I usually change the tempo to help highlight the difference, since many people think fast = cut time. Here’s the hook from “Country Roads” written by yours truly,* first in 2/2 and then in 4/4 with the tempo cut in half:

If these were my only options, the cut time rendition would be my choice. I always try to count backbeats on 2 & 4 — while there’s not quite a drum kit on the original John Denver recording, there are backbeats on the track (coming from clave hits and what sounds like a cabasa). But why not keep the tempo the same and use 4/4 at 168 BPM? 

Well, much like Latin music, some folks think country music is in 2/2. The only problem is that this doesn’t tell us much besides “just because”.

As a drummer, most of what I have to worry about is hitting backbeats, and the thing that annoys me about cut time is that it gives a song a weird double time feel since the backbeats are coming in between the pulses of the song. While I’m not inclined to say that “Country Roads” is in cut time, I certainly wouldn’t say it has a double time feel. 

While we’re on that topic, a double time feel is something that should only really be used if counting backbeats on 2 & 4 is simply impractical. Consider my transcription of “Through the Fire and Flames”; if I didn’t write it with backbeats on the 8th note off beats, the song would be at 400 beats per minute, which is disgusting for a busy heavy metal track. 

Anyhoo, back to cut time. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t have much of a problem reading “Country Roads” in 2/2, although it’s unlikely I’m counting it with a half note pulse. What really gets me is when someone decides to double the tempo of a 4/4 song and write it in 2/2 for no goddamn reasosn.

These are the examples most apparent to me; as such, cut time always seems to break my brain whenever I have to read it. My experiences in this regard come from my time in different ensembles like orchestras and marching bands. I’ve previously talked about a 2/2 arrangement of “I Want You Back” — it’s been nearly ten years since I played that tune and I still don’t know what the arranger was thinking putting it in cut time.

My college fight song “Fight CU” is written in cut time, unsurprisingly, and when I played it on the kit in basketball band, I had to explain to some of the newer drummers that the song is to be felt in 2. When it comes to drumming, “in 2” typically means playing a cut time song so it sounds like it’s not in cut time, which is something drummers have to do with disturbing frequency.

The result is a groove with a backbeat on 3; this is ostensibly a half time feel, although it certainly doesn’t sound like it, especially in the case of my alma mater’s fight song. To make things even more awkward, we would usually play the climax of “Fight CU” with a strong half time feel. Writing out this half time groove would look like this:

Of course, you I never actually counted the song this way — the best option is not to properly count it!

Come to think of it, why isn’t half time notated in 2/2? Again, I would try to avoid writing an entire piece in half time unless that’s the only practical way to count it. Songs often transition into a half time feel, but I’ve never seen such a shift underscored with a change from 4/4 to cut time. I actually think 2/2 has more value in this situation, but maybe I’m the only person who thinks so.

When it comes to classical music in a concert band setting, a composer might sincerely believe that their piece is best counted in 2/2; as spurious as it might be, I guess you’d feel less tempted to argue with them than someone arranging a pop tune. Classical music typically doesn’t have backbeats, which could make counting easier, although having to navigate dense quarter note and 8th note syncopations is irritating when the tempo is cooking. Fast ≠ cut time!

To that end, I saw a comment on David’s video arguing cut time is good because it allows a conductor to mark a half note pulse on a fast number instead of flailing about with quarter notes. But conductors can use whatever pattern they please, regardless of time signature. I played a number in 3/8 that my conductor counted “in 1” with a dotted quarter note pulse — something that was not obvious in the score at all. 

Here’s one of the few examples of a song I think would be better counted in cut time than 4/4: “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin. 

“Gallows Pole” is probably Zeppelin’s most country–esque song, but I would count it in cut time because of how Bonham plays the song. He’s basically playing a train beat, but instead of the snare backbeats coming on 2 and 4, he plays them on 1 and 3.

Naturally, you could do it in 4/4, with the snare hitting on all of the quarter notes. But something about that just doesn’t feel right to me. In addition, using 4/4 would call for a bar of 2/4 at the end of each phrase. In 2/2, no time signature changes are needed. 

I must point out that cut time feels both redundant and rather archaic. Cut time is also known as alla breve, which is Italian for “on the breve”. You might recognize the word “breve” if you’re familiar with the British names for subdivisions. Don’t be confused though. A breve is not a half note (which would be a “minim”), but rather a double whole note, a subdivision that’s now considered obsolete for all but the most abstruse of situations. If only cut time could be given the same status!

Here’s another thing: what’s the deal with 4/4 time that has 8th note beams following the half note? I hate it, but I see it all the time. Indeed, MuseScore defaults to this in common time, and I had to create my own 4/4 time signature to follow quarter note beaming. Here’s an experiment: I went to IMSLP, found a random common time score, and sure enough:

It just seems like some people always want to count their music with a half note pulse.

The world of sheet music sure seems like it’s full of finely drawn distinctions. I’ve already brought up my article about triplets and sextuplets. In that post, I also mentioned the comparison of duplets rhythms vs. dotted eight rhythms, as well as some apparently synonymous tempo markings like ritardando and rallentando.

The reason why I specified sheet music is, well… I can’t help but feel like this stuff doesn’t really matter. It’s a discussion worth having for sure, but as “Country Roads” has demonstrated, 2/2 doesn’t change the way I understand a song, since I’m free to ignore it with zero consequences. There’s a joke in the music world that’s something along the lines of “every song is in 4/4 if you try hard enough”. With cut time you don’t have to try very hard!

* I tweaked the rhythms here too. In fact, almost every transcription I’ve seen of this tune gets the rhythms wrong, in my opinion.

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