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Time signatures: how music is organized and measured

time signature

Time signatures are one of the most important indications in notated music. We use them to help organize and measure music. They help us divide music into phrases and make it easier to memorize and understand more complex passages and songs. Without them, measures in notated music would run on forever, much like a sentence without any sort of punctuation.

But, how do we understand time signatures? What exactly do they tell us? How many different types of time signatures are there? Read on to learn more about the important functions of time signatures!

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.

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 types that are worth discovering because they can create the most interesting beat.

In case you’re not sure what it is, it’s found at the beginning of all pieces of printed music just after the clef and the key signature. See the two 4’s stacked on top of another below?

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.

Common time signatures

Now we explore some common time signatures. There are two types of time signatures: simple and compound. We will explore both.

4/4 time signature

The most common is 4/4:

4/4 time signature

In a 4/4 time signature, there are four beats per measure and the quarter note receives one beat. A whole note takes up one entire measure in 4/4 time. There are 8, eighth notes in 4/4 time. Most of the songs with basic piano chords that you can learn with Skoove will be in a 4/4. 

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“C” time signature

In fact, a 4/4 time signature is so common that it is often abbreviated at the start of a piece of music to a large C. This C stands for common time:

C time signature

2/2 time signature

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 notes. 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

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

2/4 time signature

In a 2/4 time signature, there are two beats per bar and a quarter note receives one count. 

3/4 time signature

3/4 is the most used 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.

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 – 5/4, 7/4 & 7/8

Irregular or odd time signatures are the ones that can not be evenly divided into groups of two or three like time signatures with 2, 3, 4, or 6 as the top number.

5/4 time signature

5/4 is the most used “irregular”. 5/4 can be very attention-grabbing because it doesn’t fit neatly into an easy to understand rhythm as it 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 time signatures

7/4 and 7/8 are used quite a lot and can be counted in different ways. Most often, they are counted with a group of four beats followed by a group of three beats. 

You could get the same effect by writing a measure of 4/4 followed by a measure of 3/4, but it is easier for a musician reading the music notation 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” because each it can be divided into two equal sections.

But there is another type called “compound”. Compound are divided into groups of three. They consist of 8th notes grouped in threes – (so the bottom number will be an 8). 

6/8 time signature 

The most common compound time is 6/8. In 6/8 time, there are six eighth notes in a measure and the eighth note receives one count. 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

9/8 is made up of three groups of three eighth notes. There are 9 beats in a measure and an eighth note receives one beat. 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.

12/8 time signature

12/8 is made up of four groups of three eighth 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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3/8 time signature

3/8 is very similar to 3/4 except that it is 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.

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. 

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 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 one is 3/2. This means there are three beats per measure and the half note receives one beat. 

It 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:

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.

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