Have you ever found yourself tapping your foot along to a great song? Well, every time you’re tapping your foot or clapping your hands, you’re actually emphasizing the beat in the song. Time signatures in sheet music are used to specify how manybeats are contained in each measure of music, and whichnote valueis equivalent to one beat.
In sheet music, vertical black bars called bar lines divide the staff into measures.
Thetime signature in music is represented by a set of numbers, one on top of the other, resembling a fraction. In sheet music, the time signature appears at the beginning of a piece as a symbol or stacked numerals immediately following thekey signature(or immediately following theclefsymbol if the key signature is empty).
There are three main types of time signatures:simple,compound, and complex. We’re going to dive into each type and what their numbers mean, so the next time you’re checking out at a piece of sheet music, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at!
Simple Time Signatures
Time signatures where the beat can be divided into two equal parts are known as simpletime signatures.Simple time signatures are the most common kind of time signature and they pop up regularly in popular music due tothe clear, easy to determine beats.The most common simple time signatures you will see are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, although any time signature with a 2, 3, or 4 as the top number is classified as simple.
In order to truly understand simple time signatures, you must understand what the numbers represent. Thetop number determines how many beats are in a measure, while thebottom number determines whattype of note gets the beat.
Looking at the example above, we can see that the top number is “4,” telling us that there are four beats in one measure. But what kind of note gets the beat? The bottom number of a time signature can be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on. These numbers coordinate with the following types of notes:
- 1: Whole Note (very rare)
- 2: Half Note
- 4: Quarter Note
- 8: Eighth Note
- 16: Sixteenth Note
- You could continue to 32, 64, and so on, but hopefully, you’ll never encounter such a time signature!
Now that we can see the bottom “4” in this time signature represents a quarter note, we can conclude thata 4/4 time signature means there are a total of four beats per measure, and one quarter note equals one beat.
It’s important to know this doesn’t mean there canonly befour quarter notes in each measure, but rather that the total note value of each measure will add up to four quarter notes. For example, you could see any of the rhythms below, because they all consist of four quarter note beats in total.
As we said before, asimple time signature indicates that thebeat can be dividedby two. Let’s look at this example of a 3/4 time signature.
We know that a 3/4 time signature means there are three beats in a measure, and one quarter note equals one beat. Notice in the second measure that each of those beats can be divided intwo.
Compound Time Signatures
Compound time signatures differ from simple time signatures in that the beat is divided intothree equal parts, rather than two. The top number of compound time signatures is commonly 6, 9, or 12 (multiples of 3), and the most common time signatures you will see are 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. The numbers in these time signatures function nearly the same as simple time signatures, but there is onekey difference.
The bottom number means the same thing as it does in simple time signatures. The difference is with the top number.
While thetop number in simple time signatures represents how manybeats are in a measure, thetop number incompound time signatures represents the number ofdivisions in a measure.While “divisions” and “beats” may seem like the same thing, we’re going to demonstrate why they are different.
The time signature above tells us that there are six notes (or divisions) per measure, and aneighth note is equal to one division. However, 6/8 isfelt in two, meaning that songs in 6/8 seem as though there are onlytwobeats per measure instead of six.
Feel it out yourself by listening to “We Are The Champions” by Queen and tapping out the beat.
Though you could tap “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” over and over again, you’ll naturally find yourself tapping “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2.” This is because the beat emphasis is on the 1st and 4th eighth notes in each measure. You can even see this reflected in the sheet music.
Now that we understand that 6/8 is felt in two, we can observe that there aretwo beats per measure, with thedotted quarter notegetting the beat. This is where the division of thebeat intothreeequal parts comes in. Each dotted quarter note can be divided into three eighth notes, and since there aretwo dotted quarter notes per measure, there aresix eighth notes, hence the 6/8 time signature.
Just like we talked about in simple time, each measure doesn’thave to have six eighth notes, but rather the equivalent beat value.
Complex Time Signatures
An odd meter is a meter that contains both simple and compound beats. These meters aren’t nearly as common, but they’re important to be able to recognize in a piece of sheet music. We call time signatures that contain odd meterscomplex time signatures.
An example of a complex time signature is 5/4. Since finding the “beat” in complex time signatures can be tough, we will approach it the same way we approach compound time signatures.
Dissecting 5/4 time, we can determine that there are five notes (or divisions) per measure, and aquarter note is equal to one division. The grouping of these quarter notes can either be in 3+2 or 2+3, but either way, you’ll see the combination of a simple beat (division of 2) and a compound beat (division of 3).
To listen to a few songs in 5/4, check out the Mission Impossible Theme, or “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck.
Now that we’ve covered all of thetypesof time signatures, let’s apply what we know and classify a new time signature! Let’s use 9/8, the time signature found in Debussy’s famous “Clair de Lune.“
Step 1: Is the top number a 2, 3, or 4?
Recall that simple time signatures willalways have a 2, 3, or 4 as the top number. Look for this first! If you have one of these numbers, you can rest easy knowing you’re in a simple time signature. Since we have a “9” here, we’ll go to step two.
Step 2: Analyze the numbers and write out one full measure.
Now that we know we’re dealing with either a compound or complex time signature, we know that the top “9” refers to the number ofdivisions in each bar. For the bottom number, recall that the “8” stands for an eighth note, so we can now conclude that 9/8 means there are nine eighth notes in each measure.
Step 3: Do the notes divide into equal groups?
As you can see in the image above, the notes fall into equal groups of three, meaning we have acompound time signature! If this hadn’t been the case, you would then know you were dealing with acomplex time signature.
Now it’s your turn! The next time you come across a new time signature, you can use this same application to determine whether you are in simple, compound, or complex meter. The more you do this, the more comfortable you will become with time signatures, and soon enough, you’ll be a time signature genius!
Date first published: 2019/03/12
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What are time signatures in music notes? ›
Time signatures consist of two elements: a top number and a bottom number. The top number tells us the number of beats in each measure. The bottom number in time signature tells you what note values those beats are. If the bottom number is a 4, it means the beats are quarter notes (four quarter notes in a measure).What are the 4 types of time signatures? ›
There are various types of time signatures, including: simple (such as 3/4 or 4/4), compound (e.g., 9/8 or 12/8), complex (e.g., 5/4 or 7/8), mixed (e.g., 5/8 & 3/8 or 6/8 & 3/4), additive (e.g., 3+2+3/8), fractional (e.g., 2½/4), and irrational meters (e.g., 3/10 or 5/24).What is 6 4 vs 6 8 time signature? ›
6/4 and 6/8 are very similar time signatures. 6/4 and 6/8 have two strong beats per measure and these are each divided into three. The only difference is that 6/4 has 6 quarter note beats and 6/8 has 6 eighth note beats. As a rough rule, 6/8 is used for faster pieces and 6/4 is used for slower pieces.What is time signature and example? ›
In the time signatures for simple meter, the top number of the time signature is also the number of beats per measure. For example: time signatures 2/4 and 2/2 represent simple duple meter, while 3/4 and 3/8 represent simple triple meter, and 4/4 represents simple quadruple meter.What are the different types of time signature in music? ›
There are three main types of time signatures: simple, compound, and complex. We're going to dive into each type and what their numbers mean, so the next time you're checking out at a piece of sheet music, you'll know exactly what you're looking at!What is the easiest time signature? ›
1. Simple: The most common types of simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 2/2. Sometimes the letter “C” (meaning common time) will be used in place of 4/4. Both C and 4/4 indicate that there are four quarter note beats in each measure.What is the most commonly used time signature? ›
There are a number of time signatures one can choose to use, but the majority of music (not just rock, pop, and electro) is in 4/4 time. 4/4 time is also known as “common time” because it is the most common time we use in Western music.What time signature is best? ›
- The large majority of popular modern songs are in common time, the time signature of 4/4. For most people, it's the most fundamental and easiest to count kind of rhythm. A smaller percentage of songs are in some multiple of three, like 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8.How do you calculate time signature in music? ›
Count the beats out if you can. Listen for the first beat in each measure, then count out the notes, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, etc., until you hear the first beat of the next measure. Choose the most likely time signature for the song.What is the pattern of time signature? ›
The time signature consists of two numbers, stacked one on top of the other. The top number represents the number of beats per measure, while the bottom number represents the note value for each beat. Rhythms are notated using notes and rests.
How do you count time signature in music? ›
You'll spot the time signature in the beginning of the music – it's two numbers stacked vertically. The top number tells you how many beats there are in one measure. The bottom number tells you what kind of note is considered one beat.How do you tell if a song is 3 4 or 4 4? ›
In 4/4 the strongest accent is on beat 1, and the second strongest accent is on beat 3, which puts only one beat between each accented beat. In 3/4, the accent is on beat one, which puts two beats between each accented beat. Because of this, 4/4 has a more "square" feel, while 3/4 has a more "round" feel.What is 3 4 time signature called? ›
The 3/4 time signature means there are three quarter notes (or any combination of notes that equals three quarter notes) in every measure. As we learned in the prior lesson, because there is a 4 on the bottom, the quarter note gets the beat (or pusle). The 3/4 time signature is sometimes called waltz time.How do you do a simple time signature? ›
Simple Time is 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4. The top number indicates how many beats to a measure and the bottom number, 4, indicates that a quarter note gets one beat. A quarter note is the "unit of measurement." Compound Time is 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8.How do you teach time signatures? ›
You could try out their rhythm with:
- Drums and rhythm instruments.
- Marching & hopping.
- Any one piano key.
- A piano scale.
- Improvising on a pentascale.
There are three which are the most common: duple (2/2, 2/4, 6/8), triple (3/4, 9/8, 3/2), and quadruple (4/4, 12/8, 4/2). A duple meter has two beats per measure, a triple meter has three beats per measure, and a quadruple meter has four beats per measure.What is music without a time signature called? ›
Free time is a type of musical anti-meter free from musical time and time signature. It is used when a piece of music has no discernible beat. Instead, the rhythm is intuitive and free-flowing.What is the difference between time signature and key signature in music? ›
Here's the simple answer: The difference between a key signature and a time signature is that a key signature indicates the order of sharps and flats in a piece of music, and a time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure as well as what note gets 1 full beat.What is the hardest key signature to play? ›
There is an order of the keys in terms of difficulty, and it is counterintuitive. The most difficult key is C major! In general, the keys that are easiest to learn are simultaneously the least natural for the hand. As a rule of thumb, the more black keys in a given key signature, the more comfortable it will be.What song has the weirdest time signature? ›
- Dionne Warwick – 'Say A Little Prayer' ...
- Radiohead – 'Pyramid Song' ...
- The Stranglers – 'Golden Brown' ...
- Nine Inch Nails – 'March of the Pigs' ...
- Outkast – 'Hey Ya! ...
- Rush – 'Tom Sawyer' ...
- System of a Down – 'Question! ...
- Tool – 'Lateralus'
What is the least used key signature? ›
A-sharp minor is likely the least used minor key in music as it is not generally considered a practical key for composition.Why is 4 4 the most common time signature? ›
As you know by now, 4/4 is by far the most popular time signature in the world. With four steady beats in each measure, it provides for a very stable rhythm. The top number in the time signature is easily divisible by two, which is what makes it feel "even." This is also true for time signatures like 2/4, 2/2, or 12/8.How do I get a good signature? ›
Signatures that include just your initials (with or without the middle initial) are usually considered more formal and businesslike than full-name signatures. If you're worried about forgery, consider making your signature longer and more legible. Include your entire first and last name. Be sure to write clearly.What are 4 beats called? ›
The lower number of the time signature shows you what type of beat to count. 2=minim, 4=crotchet or dotted minim, 8=quaver or dotted crotchet and 16=semiquaver.What note gets the beat in 9 4? ›
In compound time signatures, each beat is divided by three into equal groups of dotted notes, such as 6/8, which contains two dotted quarter note beats, or 9/4, which contains three dotted half note beats.How do you count 7 4 time signature? ›
Seven four (7/4) simply means that each measure of music will include seven beats, with the quarter note receiving the beat.How many numbers are there in a time signature? ›
A time signature appears at the beginning of a piece of music to show the time or meter of the music. It consists of two numbers on top of each other (a bit like a fraction in math, but without the line). The top number shows the number of beats in every measure (bar).What is the key signature in music? ›
The key signature reminds the performer which sharps or flats are in the scale (or key) of the piece and prevents the composer or arranger from writing every sharp or flat from the scale every time it occurs. There are 15 major key signatures.How do you count music notes? ›
You would count the beat 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, and so on. In-between you would fill in the word 'and' for the eighth note subdivisions of each beat. A measure of eighth notes would be counted aloud, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.” Since this is how most people learn it, it's a good idea to know it that way, too.How can I get better at counting music? ›
Practice your rhythms separately from playing the notes! Work with a metronome to keep an exact pulse. It should be slow enough that you don't feel rushed. At first, set your metronome to the eighth notes or the triplets, in order to keep them evenly spaced in the beats.
How many beats is a 4 4 time signature? ›
The reality is that 4/4 music will contain 4 beats in each measure, and these beats could contain half, quarter, eighth notes or rests, just so long as the note and rest values combine to the value of the top number of the time signature, which in this case, would be 4.What song does 25 or 6 to 4 sound like? ›
11 Suspiciously Sound-Alike Songs
While it may be wholly unintentional, the opening guitar riff from Green Day's “Brain Stew” bears a striking similarity to the opening stanza of Chicago's “25 or 6 to 4.” While Chicago's rendition is slower, Green Day's intro makes a nearly identical three-chord progression.
The difference - is the top number. The top number in this instance tells us that we're going to have 2 quarter beats in each measure instead of 3 like we did with the 3/4 time signature.How do time signature 6 8 differ from 2 4 3 4 and 4 4? ›
Time signatures like 4/4 and 3/4 are known as simple meters, meaning that they are counted and “felt” very simply, one pulse to one count. 6/8 is what's known as a compound meter. In a compound meter, we feel the pulse of the music in larger groupings of three notes, even though we count each of those notes as a beat.How many beats is a 16 note? ›
Sixteenth notes are twice as fast as eighth notes. It takes 4 sixteenth notes to make 1 beat, which means that sixteenth notes are equal to ¼ of a count.What does 6 8 mean in music? ›
6/8 time signature has six eighth notes in each measure. It's in compound meter, with two large groups of three eighth-note beats each. Thus, it has a feel of two “big beats” with accents on beats 1 and 4, while 3/4 has a feel of three “big beats” with accents on 1, 2, and 3.What is 7 8 time signature? ›
7/8 time contains two simple beats and one compound beat. Again, the order of the beats does not matter. The compound beat can even be positioned between two simple beats.What is 3 2 time signature called? ›
3/2 and 3/8 are also simple triple. 4/4 time is classified as simple quadruple due to its four beats which can be divided into two notes. 4/2 and 4/8 are also simple quadruple.What is 2/4 time signature called? ›
2/4 is a Simple, Duple Time Signature
In 2/4 each beat is a quarter note and therefore can be divided into TWO eighth notes. This makes 2/4 a Simple Time Signature. It is a Duple time signature because there are TWO quarter-note beats in each measure.
A 2/2 time signature has two half note beats per measure (or two minim notes per bar). This can often be confused with a 4/4 time signature so check out our dedicated article on this. 2/2 is a simple time signature as each of the half note beats will divide into two quarter notes.
What is 3 ⁄ 4 time signature? ›
The 3/4 time signature means there are three quarter notes (or any combination of notes that equals three quarter notes) in every measure. As we learned in the prior lesson, because there is a 4 on the bottom, the quarter note gets the beat (or pusle). The 3/4 time signature is sometimes called waltz time.What does a 4 4 time signature mean? ›
So, what does 4/4 mean in music? In the 4/4 time signature, the numbers tell you that each measure will contain four quarter note beats. So each time you tap the beat, you're tapping the equivalent of one-quarter note.What is 3 4 and 4 4 time signature? ›
The terms 3/4 and 4/4 refer to the time signature of a piece of music. 3/4 means that there are three beats per measure, and the note that gets one beat is a quarter note. 4/4 means there are four beats per measure, meaning each beat has a note.What is 3 4 vs 6 8 music? ›
In 3/4, we group the eighth notes in twos, resulting in 3 strong beats in a measure – on the quarter note beats. In 6/8, we group the eighth notes in threes, resulting in 2 strong beats in a measure – on the dotted quarters.What is 3 8 time signature called? ›
3/2 and 3/8 are also simple triple. 4/4 time is classified as simple quadruple due to its four beats which can be divided into two notes. 4/2 and 4/8 are also simple quadruple.