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The basics of time signatures: a beginner’s guide

time-signature-in-music

Have you ever wondered how musicians manage to keep in sync when playing together? How they know when to play fast or slow, or when to hit the high notes in unison? Well, my friends, that’s the magic of time signatures.

Time signatures serve as the universal language of rhythm, a set of unspoken rules guiding every musician. Whether you’re strumming a guitar, beating the drums, or dancing your fingers on piano keys, understanding time signatures is the key to staying on beat and creating harmonious music.

Key Takeaways

  • The time signature indicates how many counts are in each measure and which type of note will receive one count.
  • The top number is commonly 2, 3, 4, or 6.
  • The bottom number is either 4 or 8.
  • Simple time signatures divide music into groups of 2 and compound divide music into groups of 3.

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What are time signatures?

Time signatures, or meter signatures, are the notations in sheet music that guide the rhythmic structure of a piece. They are represented by two numbers stacked vertically at the beginning of a score. The upper number indicates the number of beats in each measure, while the lower one defines the note value that equals one beat.

time-signature-in-music

Take a common time signature like 4/4. The top ‘4’ tells us there are four beats per measure, and the bottom ‘4’ means a quarter note signifies one beat. Understanding time signatures is crucial to learning, performing, and appreciating music, particularly when playing rhythm-intensive instruments like the piano.

How to read a time signature

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). If the bottom number is 2, it means the note value is half notes(half notes per measure). And if the bottom number is an 8, it means the beats are 8th notes.  

Here is a quick cheat sheet:

Bottom numberNote value
2Half beats
4Quarter beats
8Eighth beats
    • 4/4 means there are 4 beats in each measure and a quarter note receives one count.
    • 2/4 means there are 2 beats in each measure and a quarter note receives one count.
    • 2/2 means there are 2 beats in each measure and a half note receives one count.
    • 6/8 means there are 6 beats in each measure and an eighth note receives one count.

Within each of these, the beats can still be broken down into faster notes. However, the printed music will always respect the basic beats, grouping faster notes together into the main beats.

time-signature

Common time signatures

Just as a language has its popular phrases and words, music has its prevalent time signatures. These common time signatures form the rhythmic backbone of much of the music we hear. Let’s dive in and explore some of these musical mainstays.

4/4 time signature

Often referred to as “common time,” the 4/4 time signature is undoubtedly the most widely used in Western music. In 4/4, there are four beats in each measure, and each beat corresponds to a quarter note. It’s the rhythmic pattern behind many of your favorite pop songs, and it’s easy to count – one, two, three, four, repeat. The 4/4 time signature gives music a steady, marching rhythm, perfect for getting your foot tapping.

4/4 time signature

“C” time signature

If you see a mysterious “C” at the beginning of your sheet music, don’t panic. This is just another way of representing the 4/4 time signature. The “C” stands for “common time,” reinforcing just how ubiquitous this time signature is. It’s the same four beats per measure, with the quarter note getting the beat.

C-time-signature

2/2 time signature

Moving on to the 2/2 time signature, also known as “cut time” or “alla breve.” This time signature has two beats per measure, with a half note equivalent to one beat. Essentially, it “cuts” the common time in half. It’s common in faster music pieces, as it allows musicians to read and play rapid passages more easily. It sounds almost the same as 4/4 except it has a stronger accent on the 3rd beat of each measure (the second half note).

2/2-time-signature

Cut time also has an abbreviation that looks like the common time symbol, but with a vertical line cutting through it:

abbreviation

2/4 time signature

The 2/4 time signature is another frequently seen time signature, featuring two beats per measure, with the quarter note getting one beat. It’s a lively time signature that’s particularly popular in polkas, marches, and other dance music genres. If you’ve ever danced to a catchy two-step beat, you’ve felt the pulse of the 2/4 time signature.

2/4-time-signature

3/4 time signature

Last but not least, we have the elegant 3/4 time signature. This time signature gives us three beats per measure, with the quarter note getting one beat. It’s the signature behind the graceful waltz and many folk and pop songs. If you count a rhythmic one-two-three, one-two-three, you’re feeling the sway of the 3/4 time.

3/4-time-signature

“Valse d’Amelie” is a beautiful waltz with a sad feel to it.  Learn it right now on Skoove

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3/8 is very like 3/4 except it’s written with three 8th notes per measure instead of three quarter notes each measure.  Fur Elise by Ludwig van Beethoven is written in 3/8. Learn to play “Fur Elise” – the beautiful and timeless masterpiece with Skoove.

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Irregular time signatures

While the common time signatures lay the foundation for much of the music we hear, composers often employ irregular time signatures to create unique rhythmic textures. These unconventional signatures, often featuring odd numbers of beats, inject an unexpected twist into the rhythm, keeping listeners on their toes. Let’s delve into some of these intriguing time signatures.

5/4 time signature

The 5/4 time signature stands out in the world of rhythm with its unique structure. This time signature boasts five beats per measure, with the quarter note getting one beat. It creates an odd, uneven rhythm that can be broken down into subgroups, often as “3+2” or “2+3”, depending on the musical context.5/4-time-signature

One of the most famous pieces in 5/4 is the jazz standard “Take Five” by Paul Desmond and performed by The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Written by composer Paul Desmond, the song was made famous by pianist Dave Brubeck when his jazz band’s single became a surprise hit in 1961. But 5/4 was used long before this.  Gustav Holst used 5/4 to create the opening of his masterpiece, “The Planets”, written between 1914-16.  He created dramatically cinematic music in “Mars – the bringer of war” which became the “sound” associated with space when it was eventually depicted in movies years later. It’s still played a lot in concerts and used in many TV shows and documentaries. See if you can count five beats per measure while you’re listening.

Another very famous piece of music in 5/4 is the theme from the TV and film series Mission Impossible (written by Lalo Schifrin).  In this great live rendition the conductor talks about how to count the time in a very entertaining way.

7/4 and 7/8 time signatures

The 7/4 and 7/8 time signatures bring an even more unusual rhythmic feel. These signatures contain seven beats per measure, but the note value that gets one beat differs. In 7/4, it’s the quarter note, while in 7/8, it’s the eighth note. This difference in note value can create distinct rhythmic effects. Like 5/4, the seven beats can be subdivided into different groupings to vary the rhythmic feel.

7/8-time-signaturesAn easy-to-understand example of 7/4 time is Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. Also, songs in 7/8 time are extremely rare, and there are not many examples, but one example is the A melody part by Japanese pop band Spitz’s ‘Beautiful Fin’. These songs show how musicians create unique identities for their songs by using unusual time signatures.
Irregular time signatures may feel a bit daunting at first, but fear not! Skoove is here to guide you. Our well-structured lessons simplify these complex signatures, helping you get a feel for these unconventional rhythms and expand your musical horizons. So, gear up to play some quirky beats and make your musical journey even more exciting!

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Compound time signatures 

We’ve explored common and irregular time signatures, but there’s another fascinating category to discover: compound time signatures. These time signatures are characterized by a top number that’s divisible by 3, creating a ‘triple feel’ within each beat. Let’s take a look at some common compound time signatures.

6/8 time signature 

Starting off with the 6/8 time signature. This signature has six beats per measure, with the eighth note getting one beat. But don’t get confused. Rather than feeling like six separate beats, it typically has a ‘two-beat’ feel, with each beat dividing into three smaller beats. So, it’s often counted as “ONE-and-a, TWO-and-a.”

6/8 is a popular time signature in many music genres, from classical symphonies to rock anthems. It’s the time signature behind the Irish jig and many other traditional dances.

Generally, 6/8 time is divided into two groups of three eighth notes. Here is the opening of the “Game of Thrones” theme tune in 6/8 time:

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9/8 time signature

The 9/8 time signature, like its cousin 6/8, splits the measure into larger beats that each divide into three. This time, though, there are three larger beats, each dividing into three eighth notes. So it’s often counted as “ONE-and-a, TWO-and-a, THREE-and-a.”
You’ll find this time signature in the world of classical music and in some traditional folk tunes. Dave Brubeck’s Blue Ronda A la Turk is an unusual take on the 9/8.

12/8 time signature

12/8 is another compound time signature. Like 6/8 and 9/8, it is based on the division of beats into groups of three. In 12/8, there are four larger beats, and each one divides into three eighth notes. This creates a ‘swinging’ rhythm often found in blues, gospel, and some forms of rock and roll.

It’s worth mentioning that a piece in a compound time could also be written in a simple time using triplets to form the groups of three.

Beethoven wrote the opening of the Moonlight Sonata (op. 27 No 2 in C# minor) in cut time using triplets throughout:

12/8-time-signatureIf we rewrite these measures in 12/8, it will sound exactly the same:
12/8-time-signatureYou can learn to play this right now with Skoove:

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Another great song that’s in 12/8 is “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran.

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3/8 time signature

Finally, we have the 3/8 time signature. It’s similar to 6/8 but feels faster because it only has one larger beat that divides into three eighth notes. It’s often used for lively, quick music pieces.
Compound time signatures can add a unique rhythmic flavor to your piano playing. Fur Elise by Ludwig van Beethoven is written in 3/8. Learn to play “Fur Elise” – the beautiful and timeless masterpiece with Skoove.

Although it’s the same as 3/4 in essence, you might assume that the piece will be played a bit faster in 3/8.  But always be guided by any instructions at the beginning of the piano sheet music, such as “Moderato” (meaning moderate speed) or “Presto” (meaning fast).

Odd time signatures

A composer can make a choice when it comes to time signatures – as you can see, there is more than one way to write a piece of music to convey the sound you want. 

There are pieces of music written in much more adventurous time signatures. For instance, the gaming music “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Ganandorf’s Battle Theme” was written in a 23/16. This means there are 23 beats per measure and the sixteenth note receives one beat!  

A composer can create whatever time signature they need. However, the person who is going to be reading and interpreting the music notation should be considered and clarity should be the aim.

“Praeludium 15 in G major” by J. S. Bach is written with a different time signature for each hand. Namely, 24/16 for the right hand and common time for the left. 

Choosing the right time signature for your composition

Choosing the right time signature for your composition depends on the feel and rhythm you want to convey. Are you aiming for a flowing waltz or a steady rock song? Your choice of time signature will set the tone for your piece.

Don’t be afraid to experiment! Remember, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in music. Skoove’s app offers interactive lessons and experienced teachers for 1-1 live learning sessions to guide you through this process.

Understanding time signatures is essential for your journey in music, and more importantly, for enjoying your piano playing sessions! So, dive into the world of beats, rhythms, and measures, and you’ll be one step closer to becoming a pro!

Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player, Skoove is always here to guide you through your musical journey. Let’s hit those keys and make some great music, shall we?

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Author of this blog post:

Eddie Bond

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

Published by Lydia Hovan from the Skoove team

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