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Now that you have an idea of basic rhythmic values and notation used in music, you need to learn a little about time signatures.

A time signature tells you how the music is to be counted. The time signature is written at the beginning of the staff after the clef and key signature.

Time signatures consist of two numbers written like a fraction.

The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats to count. This could be any number. Most often the number of beats will fall between 2 and 12.

The bottom number tells you what kind of note to count. That is, whether to count the beats as quarter notes, eighth notes, or sixteenth notes. So the only numbers you will see as the bottom number (the denominator) will correspond to note values:

  • 1 = whole note (you’ll never see this)
  • 2 = half note
  • 4 = quarter note
  • 8 = eighth note
  • 16 = sixteenth note

You could continue on with 32, 64, but you will hopefully never encounter them! After a while it gets a bit unwieldy. The most common bottom numbers are 4, 8 and 16.

Let me give you some examples so you better understand the concept...

4/4 Time Signature Example:

A time signature of 4/4 means count 4 (top number) quarter notes (bottom number) to each bar. So the pulse, or beat, is counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on.

That means all the notes in each bar must add up to 4 quarter notes. Any combination of rhythms can be used as long as they add up to 4 quarter notes. For instance, a bar could contain 1 half note, 1 quarter note rest and 2 eighth notes. (See diagram.) Summed together they add to 4 quarter notes total. You can never have more than or less than the sum total of the number of beats in the time signature.

3/4 Time Signature Example:

A time signature of 3/4 means count 3 quarter notes to each bar. This is an often-used time signature giving you a waltz feel. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…

Again, the rhythms in each bar can be anything as long as they add to 3 quarter notes. This is where time signatures start to seem illogical and students often get confused. How can 3 quarter notes add up to a whole measure? You have to remember that all of our rhythmic terminology is based on 4/4 time since it is the most common. You’ll just have to accept the fact that music has some weird conventions just as any language. Think of all the illogical ways similarly spelled English words are pronounced.

6/8 Time Signature Example:

A time signature of 6/8 means count 6 eighth notes to each bar. This is also a very often-used time signature. You would count the beat: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on…

Now you will wonder why can’t you just reduce 6/8 to 3/4? After all, they add up to the same amount. One reason you might pick one time signature versus the other is how the music is organized.

6/8 is grouped into 2 groups of 3 eighth notes. 3/4 time would be grouped into 3 groups of 2 eighth notes. Depending on the structure of the bassline or song, it may make sense to group it one way instead of the other. So 6/8 feels more like two, while 3/4 feels more like three.

Alternate Time Signature Symbols

common time and cut time alternate symbolsA few time signatures may use special symbols instead of numbers. 4/4 is called common time since it is so common. 4/4 time is often marked with a C-shaped symbol instead of 4/4. It means the same thing.

[Completely unimportant historical note: the C symbol is not actually short for the word common. It is actually an incomplete circle from an older form of notation called mensural notation.]

Another common symbol is for cut time meaning 2/2 time. Cut time is usually written as a common time C with a slash through it.

Time Signature Summary

This was just a brief guide to what time signatures mean and their notation in written music. In later lessons I will explain meter and time signatures in much more detail.

The main thing to remember is a time signature tells you: How many of what kind.

That’s it. A time signature is the number of beats and the type of note the beat is.