What is the role and importance of time signatures in music? The time signature is one of the most important regulations of a piece of music. It basically describes how the pulse of music works. It regulates the tempo at which the music is played. In music time signatures are usually notated as two numbers, one on top of the other and are written to the left of the clef and key signature.
If you’ve ever wondered how time signatures work, how to figure them out, and how to choose your own when writing songs, this article is going to help you.
How Long is a Note?
Before you can understand time signatures, first you have to know about the length of notes. There are whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes. These also have classical music names: breve, semi-breve, crotchet, quaver, semi-quaver, semi-demi-quaver respectively.
Corresponding to these lengths of notes, there are also rests (pauses) possible in music. This means no note is being played for a particular length of a time in the bar. Again these are measured and written using the units above, in terms of how much of the bar they last (half, quarter, etc.)
Time Signature Basics
Okay, now we can talk about time signatures. You’ve probably seen these pairs of numbers in written music or heard them said aloud e.g. “four four” or “six eight”.
The top (or first) number answers the question “how many?” This basically means the number of beats you are going to count in one bar (or “measure”). For example in “6/8” time you would count out “one, two, three, four, five, six” in each bar.
The bottom number lets you know what kind of note is getting each count. So in case of “6/8”, the 8 tells you that you’re counting eighth notes. As another example, “4/4” means that you’re counting four counts to a bar, and each one is a quarter note.
How to Hear a Time Signature
When you hear a song or you’re trying to write down music you’re imagining in your head, how do you know what time signature to use? With practice this comes easily, as you become familiar with the most common time signatures and can recognise them immediately. But to learn to hear them quickly you can actively practice this skill. Here’s an easy strategy to do this.
Always start by trying to identify the top number of the time signature. It requires a bit of an instinct for musical timing. If you find it difficult, explore our other rhythm tutorials and use the listening examples to develop your sense of rhythm.
When the melody or rhythm starts, start counting. Every beat, add a finger until you hear a new bar start, then start at one again.
It might take a few tries before your ear tunes in to the length of bars. You’re listening out for that emphasised first beat that usually marks the start of a bar. Once you find yourself counting the same number of beats each time, you have tuned into the time signature and the number you are reaching is the number of beats in each bar. The chances are high that it will be a small number, most likely 3, 4 or 6.
The second part is to identify the bottom number. For this, you must find out if the beats you have been counting are faster or slower than the song’s underlying beat. A song’s time signature’s bottom number is almost always 4 or 8. That’s because we almost always count along with either quarter or eighth notes.
Listen to the bass, or try clapping along. Is the melody you’ve been counting beats for twice as fast? If you think it could be twice as fast or you feel like you’re counting in quick eighth notes rather than relaxed quarter notes, the bottom will be 8, otherwise choose 4.
It’s important to remember that written music has a specific time signature set but if you are listening to a recording, there may be multiple valid interpretations of the beat, each with a different time signature.
A common example is “3/4” vs “6/8”. One person might count out three quarter beats in each bar, while another person thinks the pace of the song is faster and counts along with six eighth beats in each bar.
That means there is a bit of an art to detecting the time signature! You’re essentially imagining what would be a sensible way to write the music down. So for example, it’s technically possible to interpret a “4/4” song as “8/8” or “16/16” by counting along with the faster subdivision of the beat. But then for a normal-paced song you’d end up with a crazy tempo to write down, like 240 or even 300BPM! Your time signature is a tip for the performer on how to count along in their head as they play the song, so you want to choose one which feels comfortable at the song’s pace. It’s also important to respect the conventions (more on this below) so that performers can use the skills they already have for counting common time signatures rather than trying to figure out the unnecessarily-strange time signature you might choose otherwise.
Based on this steps described above, you should now be able to detect the time signature yourself in simple examples. Listen to these two and try to find the right time signature.
These time signatures aren’t that hard to guess, right?
The first one is written in the most common signature of all: 4/4. As you will feel it’s very easy to count along on 4.
The second example is a bit trickier. You will feel that counting on 4 leaves you off the beat. You can try counting very slowly, just “one, two” with about one beat per second. This would be “2/4” time.
Or there is another way to interpret the beat. The drum’s cymbal part hints at this – listen to how it’s tapping three times for each of the 2/4 beats you were counting. Try counting “one, two, three, four, five, six” where the “one, two, three” happens where you were just counting “one” before, and the “four, five, six” happens where you were counting “two”. This is “6/8” time, six eighth-note beats per bar. Most musicians would choose this option as “2/4” can be a simple march style beat whereas this song clearly has a waltz-like shuffle to the beat which “6/8” describes better.
The Most Popular Time Signatures
Although one can accurately say there are no rules in music, when it comes to time signatures, there are some which are particularly common across genres. It’s useful to know these because they are familiar to musicians and so act as a shortcut to help them understand the beat of a new song.
- The time signature of 2/4 is used for polkas or marches. The “one, two” reflects the “left, right” walking pattern of a march.
- 3/4 is the most common time signature for waltzes. Watch people waltzing and see if you can count along, “one, two, three, one, two, three…”
- 6/8 is a kind of combination of 2/4 and 3/4: you can count the slow “one, two” beat if you want, but each of them will feel like its own little waltz pattern. That means you could count one bar as “one, two”, as “one, two, three, one, two, three”, or as “one, two, three, four, fix, six”
- 4/4 is the standard time signature for modern dance music, rock, jazz, country and most modern pop.
There are also a lot of unique examples: meters like 5/4, 7/4, and so on. Comparing those to most music we are listening nowadays, they sound pretty weird in terms of rhythm.
One of the most popular examples is Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, a jazz song with five beats per measure, i.e. 5/4.
Some other example may include one of all time classics: Pink Floyd’s “Money”. It’s counted as the pretty rarely-used 7/4 time. That’s why it has such a unique feeling.
These rare time signatures can seem challenging at first, but often it’s easy to make sense of them if you start from the melody or riff and then think about the bars coming from that, rather than the normal vice-versa. For example, it’s easy to count “Take Five” once you realise that the leading piano riff is split into two parts, the first occupying “one, two, three” and the second “four, five” – it could be thought of as alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4. Similarly you can interpret the 7/4 beat of “Money” as alternating bars of 3/4 and 4/4.
Alternating Time Signatures
The examples above hint at the idea of mixing up different time signatures in a song. With those two we were using pairs of alternating bars to make sense of unusual time signatures, but you can also choose to simply change the time signature from one to another during the course of a song.
Sometimes this can be useful to create some variation throughout your song. It can give a track a more unique character and make the listener feel some kind of transformation in the nature of the composition.
This may make parts of the song more intense or exactly the opposite, more calm, as rhythm tends to change based on changed time signature. Alternating time signatures are a good way to make your music unique, as this technique isn’t very commonly used nowadays.
Creating alternating time signatures
When you change meters during a composition, the numbers are going to do two things. The top number will change the count that you’re actually physically counting up to, and the bottom number is going to change the rate of time.
You can experiment with changing either or both numbers, just remember when you’re changing meters and it goes from a different meter on the bottom, the note value is what changes. So if it goes from a four to an eight, you’re talking about going twice as fast, because you’re going from a quarter note value to an eighth note value. That may mean you need a tempo change too so that the change isn’t too drastic and sudden for the listener.
Using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or score editing software is a great way to experiment with this idea, as you can change the time signature and immediately start hearing and seeing the impact it has on the track.
There are no rules on how many time signatures you can use in a song. Just remember not to make things too unsettled for the listener.
A popular example using alternating time signatures would be Paul McCartney’s classic composition “Another Day”, where the time signature goes from 4/4 in the verses to 3/4 in the bridges (listen at 0:53 when the vocals start “So sad”).
Another example (which fits somewhere in between the long-term change in “Another Day” and the short-term changes we could interpret “Money” and “Take Five” as using) is the Radiohead song “You”. It uses 3 measures of 6/8 followed by a single measure of 5/8. Accommodating this pattern using a single time signature would require a 23/8 signature, which would be pretty awkward! So the alternating time signature is used instead:
Again, what might at first seem like a very complex time signature setup actually has a simple interpretation when you listen: it’s like a standard 6/8 time signature except at the end of the riff you skip a beat and start the pattern again one beat sooner than normal!
Listen yourself to the examples above and try to count along, paying attention to transformations of time signatures. If you are able to feel them, you have most likely mastered the techniques described in this article. If not, keep practicing.
Search for more songs with different time signatures and listen to them. It’s just a question of time and your patience and you will soon be able to identify and choose time signatures yourself!