Understanding Cut Time (Alla Breve)

Cassi Falk  /  Rhythm Theory / Jan 29

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This beginner lesson will explain how to play piano in cut time, a common time signature you’ll definitely run into during your musical travels.

What is cut time?

Cut time (also known as alla breve) is a time signature that essentially means two half notes per measure (or the equivalent of that in notes or rests).

Here is the time signature of cut time. The top number represents the number of beats per measure and the bottom number represents the type of note worth one beat.

C with a vertical line down the middle.

Another way to represent cut time is with a “C” with a line through it.

How It Works

So what makes cut time different from common time or 4/4? After all, both time signatures can fit four quarter notes per measure.

The difference is that in 2/2, the beats feel larger.

In 4/4, the beats follow a strong-weak-medium-weak feeling; in 2/2, it’s strong-weak strong-weak.

Four quarter notes in cut time (2/2).


Count: 1 and 2 and

Four quarter notes in common time (4/4).


Count: 1 2 3 4

Alla breve can be confusing if you’re used to quarter notes equaling 1 beat.

So, it’s time to reset your brain! Start seeing half notes as equaling 1 beat. Everything kind of “halves” like this:

  • Half note = 1 beat. Feels like a quarter note does in 4/4 time.
  • Quarter note = 1/2 beat. Feels like an eighth note does in 4/4/ time.
  • Eighth note = 1/4 beat. Feels like sixteenth notes in 4/4 time.

In a way, notes are “cut” in half from their value in 4/4.

🔥🎹 HOT TIP! If you want a quick, no-nonsense explanation of key theory concepts, check out our lesson Piano Music Theory That’s Actually Useful.

How to Count Cut Time

You can count music in 2/2 like this:

  • Half note = “one”
  • Quarter note = “and”
  • Eighth note = “e” or “a”

Here’s an example:

Cut time grand staff with 2 quarter notes, 4 eighth notes, 2 quarter notes, and 1 half note. Count displayed: one and two e and a one and two and.

Try clapping and counting this beat with a metronome. Then, try playing and counting at the piano.

You’ll notice that because we have no sixteenth notes, music can look “cleaner” (and even less intimidating!) in 2/2.

If you’re ever in doubt, stop playing, count the rhythm, and write it down. We hope this lesson helps!

Cassi Falk Each week, Cassi has 30 students going through her home-based teaching studio - and she’s excited to help you, too, through Pianote! Cassi is trained as an Elementary and Intermediate Specialist through the Royal Conservatory Teacher Certification Program.

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