Time Signatures: a Great Way to Feel the Beat

Ending a song

One of the most important parts of music theory is the time signatures which is a great way to feel the beat.

Time signatures are the first thing a musician looks for on a piece of sheet music before playing a note.

But if you are just a beginner, you may find it difficult to understand what time signatures are.

Understanding what the numbers mean behind the strange fraction-ish looking symbols can be difficult.

Here’s rule number one– time signatures aren’t fractions at all!

Here’s rule number one– time signatures aren’t fractions at all!

To understand time signatures, there are a few key concepts that are important to know.

In this guide, we’ll start by explaining what each number in the time signature means and how simple duple time works.

Once you understand how the most common time signatures work, we’ll look at the theory behind the compound and odd time.

To learn rhythm and write better music, it is super important for you to know how time signatures work. Then if you want to create your beat in seven steps, check out here!

Let’s dive in!

What is a time signature?

The time signature is a two number symbol used in the western musical notation at the beginning of and throughout sheet music. The first number on top refers to the number of beats in each musical bar. The second number on the bottom refers to the value in terms of musical notes that each beat receives.

Knowing what a bar or measure in music is necessary if you want to understand how a time signature works.

You also have to know how music is notated and how rhythm is counted in western music.

We use bars to divide notes into a readable pattern that can be felt rhythmically.

The time signature explains how each beat is counted and what could be contained within a musical bar.

The time signature explains how each beat is counted and what could be contained withing a musical bar.

Visualizing each time signature by filling musical bars with the exact number of notes each time signature allows is the best thing you should do when you barely start.

However, keep in mind that any time signature could have a nearly infinite combination of notes within each musical bar.

Simple and common time signatures

To start learning time signatures when studying music theory, we’ll begin with simple time signatures.

Simple time signatures follow a one-two duple pulse which means that we group notes into into two’s (or duples).

4/4 time

The three most common simple time signatures are:

  • Common time or 4/4 time
  • Cut time or 2/2 time
  • 3/4 time

Common time

The greatest way to start your journey of learning about time signatures is beginning with the most common time signature of all– 4/4 time.

It’s so common, you sometimes see a C instead of the numbers 4/4 where the time signature is usually found in sheet music.

This C stands for, you guessed it, common time.

In 4/4 (or common) time, every measure has four beats. The four on top of the time signature means these four beats

The four on the bottom means that each of the four beats is counted in terms of quarter notes.

note values 4/4

So in 4/4, each bar must equal a total of four quarter notes.

That means you could only fit two half notes or eight eighth notes in a 4/4 bar.

common time

What is cut time?

Cut time or cut common time stands for a 2/2 time signature and is sometimes symbolized by a C with a bar through it.

cut time

It follows the same feel as 4/4 but with a half note pulse.

Do you still remember how a 4/4 bar can only fit two half notes? 2/2 time is the same, it also can only fit two half notes.

But, the two on the bottom of the 2/2 time signatures says that notes are valued in terms of half notes.

So, because 2/2 note values are half the value of notes in 4/4, two half notes in 2/2 time are equal in value to two-quarter notes in 4/4 time.

This half time quality in 2/2 suggests a much faster tempo even if the notation on the page follows the same feel and look as 4/4.

Cut time is most commonly used for faster pieces because they effectively cut note values in half.

Cut time is most commonly used for faster pieces because they effectively cut note values in half.

That means a 4/4 sixteenth note translates to an eighth note in 2/2.

For example, the excerpt below is the same in terms of tempo and feel. Because of only the opposing time signatures, the notation changes.

common time vs. cut time

Notation for fast pieces in 4/4 often requires extensive use of double-barred sixteenths. It will make a page of sheet music will often look very complicated and intimidating.

Cut time makes it possible to express the same tempo while cutting down on the number of double-barred notes used on a page.

What is 3/4 time?

The beginners sometimes get struggle with only one simple times signature, it is 3/4.

It follows a triple meter that is felt in one-two-three counts instead of one-two counts making it slightly more rhythmically complex.

3/4 time

However, the principles behind 3/4 remain the same. It’s still counted in quarter notes, but there are only three-quarter notes to a bar.

Compound time signatures

Things start to get a little bit more interesting with compound time.

In compound time, notes are grouped into three’s instead of the groups of two you find in simple time.

In compound time notes are grouped together into three’s instead of the groups of two you find in simple time.

This means every compound time signature follows a feel based on threes.

In general, most compound time signatures have an 8 on the bottom which means notes are counted in terms of eighth notes.

The most common compound time signatures are:

  • 6/8 time
  • 9/8 time
  • 12/8 time

compound time infographic

6/8 time is counted in terms of six eighth notes and we group them into two groups of three.

9/8 time gets a duration of nine eighth notes to each bar and we group them into three groups of three.

In 12/8 time each bar gets a duration of twelve eighth notes and we group them into four groups of three.

Odd time signatures

Odd time signatures can be a little bit more tricky, but once you know how simple time and compound time work it gets a lot easier.

You also need a strong grasp on what it feels like to play duple and triple rhythms and how strong and weak pulses work.

That’s because odd time signatures freely jump between duple and triple meter.

9/8 time signatures are a great example of odd time

I like the example of 9/8 when discussing odd times.

Yes, 9/8 can be understood as compound time, but only if you group the nine eighth notes into threes.

What if the eighth notes are grouped into three groups of two and one group of three.

That would still equal nine eighth notes and obey the rules specified by the 9/8 time signature.

For the 9/8 time signature, the way that you group a bar determines whether it is odd or compound.

So if you group the eighth notes in two’s and three’s (instead of just threes), you get that distinctive off-kilter odd time feeling.

You can see this example at play in Dave Brubeck’s famous jazz track Blue Rondo a la Turk.

odd time in 9/8

Odd time signatures are combinations of two’s and three’s

Now that you understand how 9/8 time can be divided into different groups, you can apply this to any odd time signature that comes your way.

Don’t be intimidated if you see a 13/8 or 11/4 time signature on the page.

No time signature can’t be grouped in two’s and three’s.

odd time groupings

Just look for how we divide the note and you shouldn’t have any problem feeling the beat.

Of course, there is one really great tool to get the feel right is putting down your instrument in a second and simply claping out the rhythm.

Just feel the beat

You should use time signatures to creatively express your musical and rhythmic ideas.

Learning a theoretical concept is useful for knowing how to communicate musical ideas on paper, and also understanding how certain concepts work.

But, the most important part – artists, musicians, and creators – is being free to create what we want to hear.

It’s just as important to practice our rhythmic feel by playing with others, practicing to a metronome and listening to challenging music.

Don’t let the constraints of the page hold you back, instead use time signatures as a method to open up new doors for the music you write.

 

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