Time Signatures:
all you need to know

The time signature comes just after the Clef sign and key signature at the beginning of any piece of written music.


The symbol looks like a fraction and gives us directions on how to count the notes in the piece of music and also gives us an idea of the feel of the piece of music.

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The top number tells us how many pulses, or beats, or counts are in each measure of music

The bottom number tells what kind of note ( quarter, half, eigth, etc.) will recieve one count or beat.

Basic time signatures:

The subject of time signaures can get fairly technical and there are lots of variations that can be discussed. However I am going to let you know the ones you will encounter most frequently in an effort to save you from a lot of mind numbing theory.

4/4, also known as common time.

In 4/4 time, the most common signature, there will be four beats or counts in each measure and the quarter note will count as one beat.

Because the 4/4 signature is the most common it is also called Common time and and is sometimes notated with big C as seen in this graphic.

Just about all Popular dance music is in 4/4 time. Blues, Jazz, Rock, Country etc, if its on the radio or in a dance club its most likely in 4/4 time.

2/4 or cut time will have two beats per measure with a quarter note getting one count. 2/4 time examples would be polkas and some marches.

If you have ever been to a Polish wedding you will surely have encountered 2/4 time

Another common signature is 3/4 or waltz time ( named after the dance that has three steps).

In this time there will be three beats or pulses per measure and the quarter note will have one count

All waltz's and many country and western, R&B and Pop Ballads may use this time signature. Some examples would be Tennessee Waltz, Could I have this Dance, and Once, Twice, Three times a Lady etc.

6/8 time

Some Rock music will have this feel as well as Double jigs, polkas, tarantella, marches, barcarolles, and Irish jigs.

Some popular sons with a 6/8 feel would be:
Old Friends – [Simon& Garfunkel] We Are the Champions - [Queen]
Lights - [Journey] (How Can You Mend) A Broken Heart - [Bee Gees, Al Green] and Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) – [The Beatles]

12/8 time or (quadruple)

This signature is common in slower blues (where it is known as shuffle) and doo-wop; also used more recently in rock music. Some examples of tunes in 12/8 time would be:

It's a Man's World - James Brown
Natural Women - Aretha Franklin U2's "Trip Through Your Wires.""Memory", from Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber.
BB King: Sweet Little Angel

Some interesting "uncommon" time signatures".

Some of my favorite jazz pieces that experimented with irregular meter were by The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The most recognizable would be "Take Five"' written in 5/4 time. Dave Brubeck also created compositions in 11/4 ("Eleven Four"), 7/4 ("Unsquare Dance"), and 9/8 ("Blue Rondo à la Turk"), expressed as 2+2+2+3.


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After checking out dozens of home study courses that teach you to play by ear and focus on chord progressions I am convinced that the folks at Hear and Play have the best, most well rounded program available for just about all styles of music from Gospel to Jazz. Read my review or visit Hear and Play for more information.

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If you have any questions, suggestions, or ideas for future lessons feel free to Contact Me.

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