The time signature of a piece of music is one of the key clues that can help you understand the rhythm and structure of the piece.
It tells you how the music is to be counted, what beats are emphasized, and most importantly, what the “feel” of the music is likely to sound like.
In fact, with enough practice, it’s possible to tell the time signature of a piece simply by listening to it – no sheet music necessary!
In this introduction to time signatures, we’ll teach you exactly what those fraction-like numbers mean, what kinds of music use what time signatures, and the simple time signature that almost all of your favourite rock and pop jams use.
By the end of this tutorial, you’ll understand how time signatures work, get acquainted with simple and compound time signatures, hear some famous tunes that illustrate each one, and learn to distinguish the time signatures of 2/2, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 by ear!
Table of Contents
What is a Time Signature?
The time signature of a piece of music is that fraction-like pair of numbers found at the beginning of a piece of sheet music:
Numbers are usually there to measure things, so just what are these numbers measuring?
About Those Numbers
Most music throughout the world is organized in regular rhythmic patterns of strong and weak beats. Beats are grouped into bars, also called measures. Though there are exceptions, namely free rhythm, we will be discussing more structured music in this article.
The time signature is there to ensure that bar-to-bar, the overall beat of the music stays constant. It contains two numbers, which tell you how to count the music, and indicate how the bars will be organized:
- The top number in a time signature indicates how many beats will be present in a bar
- The bottom number in a time signature indicates what kind of note is considered one beat
While time signatures come in all sorts of different flavours, some weirder than others (13/16 time, anyone?) the vast majority of music will have a time signature with a top number between 2 and 12, and a bottom number that corresponds to a note value – that is, 2, 4, 8, or 16 (32 and 64 also exist but they’re extremely rare!)
In 4/4 time, therefore, that top number is telling us that each bar will have four beats, while the bottom number indicates that the quarter note gets one beat. Similarly, 2/4 time tells you that the quarter note again receives one beat, but each bar will only have two beats. If you need an introduction or a refresher on note types and the concept of beats, head over to School of Composition’s excellent primer.
Time Signature and Meter
By setting the number of beats in a bar and the note value assigned to one beat, the time signature ensures that there is bar-to-bar consistency in the music where rhythm is concerned – it helps ensure that there is an underlying structure, called meter.
Meter is defined as the structure of beats – more specifically, the fact that some beats are naturally more strong, or “stressed”, than others. The meter engages the ear through consistency, and is what gives music its “feel”. In an overwhelming majority of simple time signatures, beat 1 is the strongest beat in the bar, meaning you can often hear when a new bar starts by listening for an emphasized note.
The easiest example of this is a clock – we hear it as tick-tock, not tick-tick. This is, in fact, an example of duple meter, which means there is a primary division of two beats to a bar. The first beat of every bar is stressed, resulting in the “tick” being stressed as well.
Depending on the time signature, different beats will be stronger and weaker than others. We will look at concrete examples in just a minute, but keep this concept in mind as we introduce you to new time signatures.
Simple Time Signatures
Some good news: the majority of pop, rock, country, and folk music uses simple time signatures. These are the most straightforward time signatures to figure out and to play.
In simple time, the top number will always be 2, 3, or 4 – this ensures that there is only one “group” of beats per bar, distinguishing it from compound time signatures (more on these later). Study Bass has an excellent quick-and-dirty summary of the simple time signatures.
We’ll start with the popular kid in school – 4/4 time, being so ubiquitous that it’s commonly referred to by its alternate name – common time. It can appear on sheet music in one of two ways:
With four beats to a bar and a quarter note taking on the value of one beat, 4/4 is a time signature that is agreeable to the ear and fits perfectly with the structure of most rock and pop songs.
So what makes a song “sound” like it’s in 4/4? It’s the pattern of emphasized beats, which is as follows:
As we said before, beat 1 is the strongest beat in the majority of simple time signatures, and 4/4 is no exception. Beats 2 and 4 are the weak beats in the bar, with beat 3 being a little bit more emphasized.
This lends itself well to the classic rock drum beat, or the kick-hihat-snare-hihat pattern. The kick falls on the strongest beat, the hihats occupy weak beats 2 and 4, and the snare takes beat 3. You can hear this here:
Try counting or clapping along with the song; chances are, it will sound like clap-clap-clap-clap clap-clap-clap-clap, or one-two-three-four one-two-three-four.
The quarter note still gets one beat, but we now have three beats to a bar.
What does this mean, considering the first beat of every bar gets the strongest emphasis?
As you can hear, the resulting accent pattern in each bar is one-two-three. This lends a lulling, waltz-like quality to the beat. It then makes sense that waltzes themselves use this time signature, with the beat pattern corresponding to the dancers’ foot movements.
Try clapping along with the following:
In 2/2 time, the half note gets one beat, and there are two beats to a bar. The first beat gets the emphasis, and the second beat is the weaker one:
The resulting accent pattern of one-two is reminiscent of a ticking clock, or a march. This time signature is also referred to as cut time.
Sure enough, the accent pattern means that marches are often written in this time signature. Try clapping along to the following:
Compound Time Signatures
Though they may appear complicated to the ear and on paper, compound time signatures are just multiple simple time signatures squished into one. Examples are 6/8, 12/8, and 9/8.
The rules remain the same – the top number tells you how many beats exist in a bar, and the bottom number indicates the note value that represents one beat.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that a complication arises.
We know that in 3/4, for example, the beat pattern is strong-weak-weak. However, if we have a compound time signature of 6/8, how do we assign emphasis to the beats in a way that each bar still has structure and discernible rhythm?
The answer is to think of 6/8 time as two groups of 3/8:
You may notice that your clapping or counting pattern follows a pattern of one-two-three-four-five-six, with beat 1 being the strongest, and beat 4 also getting some emphasis to signal the beginning of the second half of the bar.
When it starts moving along, it’s easier – and more common – to count 6/8 in two – one–two-three-two-two-three.
Try clapping along with Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”:
You can really hear the two-beat split within each bar – it’s emphasized by the guitar strum pattern, with a chord change signaling the end of each 6/8 bar.
To better understand this time signature and how it relates to it’s cousin, 3/8 time, check out Hoffman Academy’s engaging video on the topic.
With 9 beats and the eighth note receiving “one beat”, we could count this time signature as one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine, but that would quickly get unwieldy and confusing.
Similarly to 6/8 time, the solution is to break down this compound time signature into three groups of three eighth notes. This allows you to employ the easy one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two-three counting method, with the option to count one-two-three-two-two-three-three-two-three in order to keep track of the bars:
Try counting or clapping along with this track:
This consists of twelve beats, separated into four groups of three eighth notes each. You can therefore count it as one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve.
Although we doubt you’d want to, considering the count of one-two-three-two-two-three-three-two-three-four-two-three works just as well, and is a bit easier to wrangle!
You can think of this as 4/4 time with a triplet feel, owing to the four “strong” beats, each of which are followed by two weak beats, with a subdivision of one-two-three, just like in 3/4 time.
This time signature is common in Southern gospel-influenced music, such as Aretha Franklin’s “Surely God Is Able”:
Complex Time Signatures
So what do all of the above time signatures, whether simple or compound, have in common?
They are comprised of one or more identical groups of a certain note value. 4/4 has one group of four quarter notes. 9/8 has three groups of three eighth notes. 12/8 has four groups of three quarter notes.
So, what happens when you have a time signature with uneven beat groupings, such as 5/4, 7/4, or 5/8? These are called complex time signatures, and require a little bit more thought when being counted.
You may, when songwriting, even accidentally write a riff that is in a complex time signature and not realize it’s odd meter until you count it through! Eve Alpert of Philadelphia indie rock band Palm shares a fresh take on songwriting and conveying emotions in odd meter.
We won’t go very deep into these complex time signatures as we will be focussing on simple and compound time in the time signature exercises below, but just to give you an idea…
Try clapping along with Pink Floyd’s “Money”, using the melody of the bassline to count beats:
You’ll notice that you clap seven times over the course of one iteration of the bassline – the song is in 7/4 time!
This makes counting this time signature in groups quite tricky, as the stress pattern isn’t so simple. Depending on the song, it may make sense to count 7/4 as 4/4 + 3/4, or as 2/4 + 2/4 + 3/4.
Now, try counting along with Radiohead’s “15 Step”, beginning on the kick-drum like beat:
This time, you’re counting to five between the heavily-accented beat. In this instance, there’s only one beat every bar that’s heavily accented, and it’s that first one.
Therefore, this song can be counted as one-two-three-four-five.
For a more in-depth look at this unique time signature and its alternate beat patterns, check out Let’sTalkAboutMathRock’s illustrative guide.
Hearing Time Signatures
Now that you’re familiar with the most common instances of simple and compound time signatures, let’s try determining the time signatures of some popular songs. If you want more description of the character of each time signature, check out Music Radar’s guide.
Here’s are some tips to help you along:
- The first beat in every bar is usually accented
- The first beat in every bar division is usually accented
Remember: clapping along and counting are your best friends! Live Ukulele’s guide includes great tips on knowing where to start and how to count. Pay attention to where the emphasis falls, count the beats, and you’ll be fine.
The answers are below each song, but listen carefully to the song and make your best guess before checking them!
Beat one of every bar is heavily stressed in this song, with beat four also getting some emphasis, though not nearly as much. Count one-two-three-four-five-six, with one falling on the heavily emphasized first note of every bar, and note how this gives the song a different feel than the waltz-like 3/4 time signature.
Try counting along with the opening bars, when just the guitar is strumming, then continuing along as the flute joins in.
Getting in Time
Sometimes, you may come across a piece of music in a truly indiscernible time signature, though it does happen:
If you’re curious, the Terminator theme is in 13/16 time. The beat comes in stronger around [2:13], for those of you who care to count along (good luck!).
This kind of intensely complex time signature, however, is far from a common occurrence. To reiterate the good news: most popular songs you come across and want to play on your instrument will be in simple time signatures.
That doesn’t mean, however, that 4/4 time will necessarily have a strict four-note pattern that is easily recognizable as 4/4! Plenty of music adds fascinating note patterns and flourishes to add interest to a simple time signature – Bagpipe Lesson shows you the kind of embellishments that exist in 4/4 time!
More good news: learning to discern time signatures is fun! You get to listen to and engage with your favourite music, finding patterns and improving your sense of rhythm all at once.
What are you waiting for?
Understanding time signatures has benefits that stretch beyond theory and into your performance – training your ear to recognize time signatures will help you to play by ear, achieve a certain “feel” with your songwriting, perform expressively, and more.
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