Musical symbols are tricky, and they take some time to learn.
As a music teacher, a friend to many band directors, and a spouse to one, I know one of the hardest symbols for people when they first see it is the C with a line through it in music.
The C with a line through it in music is called cut time, split time, or alla breve. It’s a replacement shorthand for the time signature 2/2. This means the half note gets the beat, and there are two beats in each measure. It’s commonly used in marches and other faster pieces.
As a time signature, it’s sort of odd how we’ve evolved over the years to use this letter, but it’s something all musicians will come across at some point.
So let’s get some clarity on this issue in the rest of the article.
Table of Contents
Start With The C In Music: Common Time
Before we get into the C with the line through it, let’s talk about why we use a C at all.
The C in a music time signature stands for Common Time.
It’s another way to write 4/4 meter.
Being one of the most common time signatures for music (if not the number one most common), it makes sense to shorten this to a C for Common Time, right?
This myth makes sense and works for most people, but it isn’t strictly true in the history of music.
The truth is interesting but less easy to remember.
In the early 13-17th centuries, the Catholic Church formed the heart of formal and written music.
The hymns and religious music were written either in a 3 meter or a 4 meter.
In the eyes of the Church, the number 3 is perfect and holy.
Therefore, 3 meter is also perfect and ideal. It was represented in shorthand with a circle because a circle was perfect.
4 meter was considered a meter for the common folk. It was less perfect, so it was represented in music as a circle with a chunk missing out from it.
This is where the C came from. It didn’t start life as the letter, but most people recognized it as the C before the broken circle in time.
C With A Line In Music: Cut Time, Split Time, Alla Breve
As meter changed and got more varied in the 1700s and beyond, they used more mathematical means to show the meter.
This is where we started to see our traditional 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, and 2/2 meters.
Because 4/4 was the same as Common Time, the C and the 4/4 were frequent.
One of the different meters used was 2/2 meter.
This features the same amount of quarter notes in a measure, but now the beat and tempo belong to the half note instead of the quarter note.
The result is a meter where a composer and musician can read and play faster rhythms without adding on as many flags for the faster rhythms.
Because this meter is essentially 4/4 or Common Time twice as fast, some composers started to put a line through the C in music to give the time signature as a shorthand.
The line is where the nickname Cut Time comes from. Some people also call it Split Time, though this is less common.
Alla breve is another name for it, though it’s used to refer to any time signature where the half note gets the beat.
How Does Cut Time Work?
Cut Time, the c with a line through it or 2/2 meter, works like this:
When musicians first see and play in cut time, it throws them off, but with practice, it’ll come.
As a quick reference, use this table to see the difference in Common Time (4/4) and Cut Time (2/2):
|Value in Common Time (4/4)
|Value in Cut Time (2/2)
Where Do You See Cut Time In Music?
Cut Time is one of the more frequent time signatures, but it’s used especially in certain types of pieces and sections.
In modern music, you’ll most likely see it in one of two situations:
- In a march
- Where there are many fast notes in a section
However, in music history, Cut Time was used a little more sporadically.
It was common practice to use Cut Time to represent slow pieces as well.
The half and whole notes encouraged the players to use full and broad tones to play slower pieces, even in cut time.
But unless you’re playing a bunch of Vivaldi or other Baroque and Rennaissance pieces (older Classical Music), this won’t happen to you often.
How Time Signatures Work
Time Signatures are one of the fundamental aspects of a piece of music and music theory, so knowing how they work is crucial.
In general, time signatures follow this rule:
Let’s look at 3/4 time, for example. The top number is 3, telling us we have three beats or notes per measure.
The bottom number is 4, telling us the quarter note (1/4 note) gets the beat.
Therefore, we have 3 quarter notes in every measure.
This rule applies to the following time signatures:
- Slow 6/8
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the most common ones.
The main exception you’ll see in most music is 6/8 time. If 6/8 is slow, it follows the rule.
If the tempo for 6/8 is fast, then the rule is different.
In a fast 6/8, there are actually 2 beats per measure and the dotted quarter note (made of 3 eighth notes) gets the beat.
Mathematically, it works out the same, but the feel is different.
Speaking of tempo, check out what a tempo means in music.