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Time signatures explained

What is a time signature? 

Time signatures are what give a song its beat.  The term “Four on the Floor” refers to dance music that will always be in 4/4 – four beats per measure because that’s the best beat to dance to.
But there are many other time signatures that are worth discovering because they can create the most interesting beat.
In case you’re not sure what a time signature is, it’s found at the beginning of all pieces of printed music just after the clef and the key signature.

The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure while the bottom number tells you what value those beats are.  If the bottom number is a 4, it means the beats are quarter notes.  If it’s a 2 it means the beats are half notes and if it’s an 8 it means the beats are 8th notes.  Here is a quick cheat sheet:

Bottom numberNote value
2Half beats
4Quarter beats
8Eighth beats

A time signature of 4-4 means there are 4 quarter beats in each measure.
A time signature of 2-4 means there are 2 quarter beats in each measure.
A time signature of 2-2 means there are 2 half beats in each measure.
A time signature of 6-8 means there are 6 eighth notes in each measure.
Within that structure, the beats can still be broken down into faster notes, but the printed music will always respect the basic beats, grouping faster notes together into the main beats.

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Common time signatures 

The most common time signature is 4/4:

In fact, it’s so common, that it’s often abbreviated at the start of a piece of music to a large C, which stands for common time:

2/2, also known as “cut time” is also very common and it’s literally 4/4 cut in half. Each measure consists of two half beats. It sounds almost the same as 4/4 except it has a stronger accent on the 3rd beat of each measure.

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

2/4 is also a very common time signature often used for marches:

3/4 is the most used time signature after 4/4 and 2/4.  With three beats per measure, it creates a lilting waltz time that was made hugely popular in Vienna by the great Johann Strauss II during the 19th century.

“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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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 music, such as “Moderato” (meaning moderate speed) or “Presto” (meaning fast).

Irregular time signatures – 5/4, 7/4 & 7/8

5/4 is the most used “irregular” time signature. 5/4 can be very attention-grabbing because it doesn’t fit neatly into an easy to understand rhythm as if feels “off-kilter”.  It’s usually counted in a group of three quarter notes followed by a group of two, but sometimes you’ll find it counted in the reverse: 2 then 3.
Here are two measures in 5/4 time.  In the first one, you can see there are five quarter beats, so the notes are evenly spaced.  However, in the second measure the first two quarter beats are broken into four 8th notes and the 2nd and 3rd are tied.

This second measure is a very common rhythm used in 5/4 and you’ll hear it in the jazz song “Take Five”.

 

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 are used quite a lot and can be counted in different ways.  Most usually it’s counted with a group of four followed by a group of three.  You could get the same affect by writing a measure of 4-4 followed by a measure of 3-4, but it’s simpler for a musician reading the music if the time signature changes as little as possible.

Have a listen to Broken Social Scene’s song “7/4 (Shoreline)”.  More famously, Pink Floyd’s “Money” is in 7/4.

Compound time signatures 

All the time signatures we’ve looked at so far are called “simple” time signatures because each measure is a self-contained group of notes.
But there is another type of time signature called “compound”.  Compound time signatures have multiple groups of notes within them.  They consist of 8th notes grouped in threes – (so the bottom number in the time signature will be an 8).   The most common compound time is 6/8 and it’s made up of two groups of three 8th notes. Here is the opening of the “Game of Thrones” theme tune:

You can learn this piece right now with Skoove

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9/8 is made up of three groups of three 8th notes.  Here is the famous opening of Bach’s Chorale from Cantata No 147:

Dave Brubeck’s Blue Ronda A la Turk is an unusual take on the 9/8 time signature.

12/8 is made up of four groups of three 8th notes.
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:

If we rewrite these measures in 12/8, it will sound exactly the same:

You 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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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 a 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” is written in 23/16.  A composer can create whatever time signature they need.  However, the person who is going to be reading and interpreting the music 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.  Not for the faint of heart, if you decide to learn it, it is at least a short piece.

Changing time signatures 

A piece of music doesn’t have to stay in the same time signature the whole time, it can move as freely as the composer wishes from one time signature to another as many times as they want.  Many songs and classical pieces do this.
A great example of a piece of music that changes time signatures a lot is “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” by John Adams.  If you’ve never read an orchestral score before, you may find this very interesting. You only read across each page once as everything on the page is happening at the same time.  Notice that the first time signature is 3-2.  The time signature changes often in this piece.  Within each time signature, listen out for more complex rhythms within the measures that make it sound like the time signature has changed again, when it hasn’t.  If you feel like you’ve been on a roller coaster by the end, the composer has achieved his goal!


Author of this blog post:

Georgina st george

Georgina St George has been playing piano most of her life. She has a thriving piano school on the south coast of England. She loves to infuse her students with her passion for music, composing and performing. Her music has been featured on over 100 TV shows and her musicals have been performed in New York and London’s West End.


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