For musicians, learning to understand the time signature is critical. This is true even if you don’t read music.
Why? Because music (at its most basic) is a series of notes arranged in time. A time signature tells us how to time those notes and helps explain the rhythm you play them to.
Still confused? Read on to learn exactly what a time signature is and how they work.
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What Is a Time Signature?
A time signature tells us how the notes in the piece are grouped.
Time signatures consist of two numbers, one above the other and looks very much like a fraction. It’s usually shown at the beginning of a piece of written music.
There are important terms that you need to understand when learning time signatures:
When you listen to a piece of music, you can feel its pulse, right? That steady drive is the beat. Every piece of music is structured by its beat. Even if there is a gap in a song where no instruments play, the beat is still there—when the instruments play again it will be on the beat.
Bars (or Measures)
But those beats need to be organized. So we put the notes into (usually) groups of two, three, or four beats—we’ll talk more in-depth about those groupings in a bit.
For now, know that those groups are called bars or measures. In sheet music, they are separated by a vertical line called a barline.
Notes are the sounds played by instruments in time to the beat. You don’t necessarily play one note per beat. Some notes last longer than one beat, while others are shorter.
You’ve probably seen notes on sheet music before. These are used to express the pitch of the note you need to play and the rhythm that you need to play them to.
To explain time signatures, we’re going to focus on the rhythm. Let’s look at the different notes and how long they last.
The most common note in written music is the quarter note. It usually represents one beat, though not always (more on that soon). In the most common time signature, which is 4/4, a quarter note represents one beat, and there are four beats per measure.
Dotted Quarter Note
Dots add half the note’s value to that note. If a quarter note gets one beat, a dotted quarter note gets one and a half beats. We can add a dot to any note to add half of that note’s value to it, not just quarter notes.
A half note is as long as two quarter notes. In 4/4 it lasts two beats.
A whole note is as long as four quarter notes. Look at the pattern here: there are two halves in a whole and four quarters in a whole. In 4/4, a whole note takes up the full bar since it gets four beats. That means it has one beats per measure.
We started with a quarter note and then looked at longer notes. Now it’s time to go the other way and look at shorter notes. An eighth note is half as long as a quarter note. There are two eighths in a quarter note. When more than one eighth note gets written in a row they are connected together.
Two sixteenth notes make up one eighth note, and four make a quarter note. These are fast notes.
Here’s an overview of how these notes relate to each other:
How Do You Read a Time Signature?
As already mentioned, a time signature looks like a fraction. Each number gives the music reader information:
- The bottom number tells us which note length gets one beat. So in a 4/4 time signature, a quarter note will get one beat. That’s because the bottom number is a four, which corresponds to the bottom note of the fraction ¼. This is where the name “quarter note” comes from. If you see an eight on the bottom, then the eighth note gets a beat, and so on.
- The top number tells us how many beats per measure. Using 4/4, again, we already know the quarter note gets one beat. The top number, then, tells us there are four beats per measure. Common top numbers are four, three, two, six, and nine.
The Most Common Time Signatures
We’ve mentioned 4/4 time quite often, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the vast majority of pop, rock, and hip-hop songs use that time signature. Nearly all disco is in 4/4. So is a good deal of blues and a large portion of Duran Duran’s entire catalog.
Specific pieces of music written in 4/4 include:
- Cello Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007, Johann Sebastian Bach
- Fight for Your Right, Beastie Boys
- Friends in Low Places, Garth Brooks
- Get Back, The Beatles
- I’m a Believer, The Monkees
- Kiss, Prince
- My Way, Frank Sinatra
- Ode To Joy from Symphony No. 9, Ludwig van Beethoven
- Roxanne, The Police
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, spiritual
- The Entertainer, Scott Joplin
- The Hallelujah Chorus, George Frederick Handel
- You Are My Sunshine, traditional
This tiny sample of music across genres, shows that 4/4 songs can be fast or slow, happy or sad, and just about anything in between.
Composers write waltzes in 3/4. The grouping of three beats creates a lilting feel that lends itself well to dancing. But that’s not the only use for this time signature. Familiar songs include:
- Blue Danube Waltz, Johann Strauss
- Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein
- Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, The Beatles
- Lullaby, Johannes Brahms
- Manic Depression, Jimi Hendrix
- Mephisto Waltzes No. 1, Franz Liszt (all the Mephisto Waltzes are in 3/4, to be exact)
- Shadow, Britney Spears
- Someday My Prince Will Come, Frank Churchill and Larry Morey
- Take This Waltz, Leonard Cohen
This is a less common time signature, but some include:
- Flight of the Bumblebee, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
- I Love Rock’ N’ Roll, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
- The Memphis Blues, W.C. Handy
- Within You Without You, The Beatles
Many marches, such as Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, as well as most fight songs played by marching bands, are in what’s called cut time, or 2/2. The half note gets one beat, and there are two per measure, so it looks very much like 4/4. It’s less common to see 2/2 written in the music, but rather, composers notate it this way:
Many drinking songs and children’s songs are in 6/8, as well as others.
- Ants Go Marching, traditional
- Blue Ain’t Your Color, Keith Urban
- Breaking the Girl, Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Everybody Hurts, REM
- Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen
- House of the Rising Sun, The Animals
- Lights, Journey
- Love on the Brain, Rihanna
- Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), The Beatles
- Romance in A Minor from Grand Sonata for Guitar and Violin, Niccolo Paganini
A version of the 3/4 waltz, 9/8 occurs often in blues music, as well as some Americana tunes.
- Ride of the Valkyries from the opera Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
- Beautiful Dreamer, Stephen Foster
- Blessed Assurance, hymn by Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp
- Clair De Lune, Claude Debussy
- Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, Johann Sebastian Bach
- Morning Has Broken, Cat Stevens
Like 9/8 is with 3/4, 12/8 is essentially 4/4 but in compound meter. Also, like 9/8, 12/8 is very common in the blues. Other examples include:
- Memory from Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Minute by Minute, Michael McDonald
- Trip Through Your Wires, U2
- Lacrimosa from Requiem Mass K.626, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Irregular Time Signatures
Not every piece uses two, three, or four time signatures. Sometimes, composers will use less common time signatures that impart a very different feel. The Mission Impossible theme, for example, is in 5/4.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck released his album Time Out in 1959. The title stemmed from the fact that no piece on the album was in 4/4. Take Five is in 5/8, and Blue Rondo a la Turk is in 9/8 but is subdivided in an unusual way.
Prog rock band Rush and former Police frontman Sting have composed many pieces in 7/4 and 7/8. Rush uses many unusual time signatures, often changing several times in one song.
Morning Bell, Radiohead
La La Love You, The Pixies
Spoon Man, Soundgarden
Money, Pink Floyd
Tom Sawyer, Rush
5/8 and 7/8
Alice In Chains plays Them Bones in 7/8. To play irregular time signatures more easily, musicians group beats within each measure. They then emphasize certain beats.
This can be seen in the way they count in the song. Instead of counting, “one, two, three, four, five,” we count and feel it like this: “ONE, two, three, FOUR, five,” or “ONE, two, THREE, four, five.” Seven usually breaks down into “ONE, two, THREE, four, FIVE, six seven,” or “ONE, two, three, FOUR, five, SIX, seven.”
The Beatles’ tune Happiness is a Warm Gun runs through many time signatures in less than three minutes. It starts in 4/4 but moves through 3/8, 5/4, 6/4, 9/8, 10/8, and 12/8.
How to Learn Time Signatures
Time signatures can seem complicated when you read about them. The best way to learn them is:
- Listen to songs with different types of time signatures.
- Learn to play these songs.
- Get a feel for these time signatures – in other words, be able to identify them or hum them yourself.
Understanding time signatures is important because it helps you to learn new songs quicker. It will also allow you to jam with other musicians and join in with guitar riffs that use different time signatures.
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