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The Ultimate Guide to Time Signatures and Meters

Time signatures are one of the most important building blocks of music and are essential for understanding music theory. They also allow you to sight read and play a fantastic variety of pieces. So let's dive in and find out exactly what they are and how to use them.

What is a Time Signature?

A time signature or meter is a way of giving you a clear structure to help organise the music. Music is organized using beats. Using this regular pattern of beats you can write rhythms. By using the time signature and regular pattern of beats you can give the music a regular structure and style. By doing this you make the music much easier to read. Time signatures are shown by two numbers at the start of the music and look a little bit like a fraction. A piece of music will often be written using one time signature, but composers can change time signatures midway through a piece.

Test your Knowledge with our free Time Signature Quiz

How do you read a time signature?

Take a look at the melody below, it is tough to read this melody without bar lines to divide it up. If we we break this melody up into manageable chunks then it will be much easier to read and play. We divide our music up into bars with bar lines. To know how many beats we need inside each of our bars (or measures), we have to indicate this at the start of the music by using a time signature! By writing a time signature at the start of our music, we ensure that we know how many beats/notes to include in each of our bars.
The 12 notes in the melody above can easily be divided into groups of 2, 3 or 4 and we can add in bar lines to show this. Let's also write the number of beats we have in each of these bars at the start of each melody as well, to make it clear!
As you can see the top number in the time signature shows us how many beats are in each bar.
Now these melodies are all counted in crotchets (quarter notes) but we may want to count in minim beats or quavers beats. How can we show this with our time signatures?
 
This is where the bottom number comes in. The table below shows what each bottom number means.
To understand why 4 means crotchets and 2 means minims we have to look at the American note naming systems. This systems starts with a whole note (semibreve) and then divides it up into the other notes. So a minim is a half note, as two minims equal a semibreve. This continues with quarter, eighth, sixteenth and even thirty-second notes.
If we use the American names we can see that 4/4 time is the fractions four quarters, as in four quarter notes (or four crotchets) in each bar.
 
Similarly 3/2 would be three halves, or three half notes. Half notes are minims so we count three minims in each bar.
 
By using this method you don't have to simply rely on memorising what the bottom notes mean. 

What are the three most commonly used time signatures?

As we have said above, a time signature is made up of a top number and a bottom number.
 

The top number tells us how many beats are in each bar. But it does not tell us the type of beats to count in. It is the bottom note that tells us the type of beat we will count in. But what are the most common time signatures that you may encounter?

4/4 Time

4/4 means there are 4 crotchet beats in each bar (or measure). This is called Common Time and is sometimes shown as a 'C' at the beginning of the music. We count this as 1...2...3...4 for each bar.

2/4 Time

2/4 means there are 2 crotchet beats per bar (or measure). We count this as 1...2...1....2...1....2 for each bar.
 

3/4 Time

3/4 means there are 3 crotchet beats in each bar (or measure). We count this as 1...2...3....1....2...3 and music written in this time signatures has a waltz feel to it.
 
What are strong beats?
The notes that make up a melody are not necessarily the same as those in the time signatures. For example, the below pieces of music is written in quavers (eighth notes) but the time signatures is counted in crochets (quarter notes). There are eight quavers per bar which equals 4 crotchets.
 
When playing this melody we would count 1...2...3...4 for each bar. These are the strong beats and we would count like this regardless of the notes that make up the melody. Notice the accents above the music to show where the strong beats fall.

 

What about other time signatures? 

The time signature of 6/8 is made up of 6 quaver beats per bar, but how do you count it? We do NOT count 1,2,3,4,5,6 as this would quickly get confusing. For 6/8 we count in 1....and....a....2....and....a....1....and....a....2....and....a. We only count the two strong beats as shown with the accents. Check out the image below to see how the piece should be counted. 
Now this definitely makes it easier to count a piece in 6/8, but it does give us another problem. How do I remember how many strong beats there are in every time signatures? Or to put it another way: how do I remember how to count correctly for any time signature?
 

Fear not, the next section on simple and compound time signatures will explain all!

Test your Knowledge with our free Time Signature Quiz

Simple and Compound Time Signatures

Time signatures are described in two ways, either with the description duple, triple or quadruple. It is then also described as simple or compound. But what exactly do all of these words mean?

Duple, Triple and Quadruple Time Signatures

The terms duple, triple and quadruple refer to how many beats there are in your bar (measure).

  • Duple means that there are two main beats in a bar.
  • Triple means that there are three main beats in a bar.
  • Quadruple means that there are four main beats in a bar.

Simple Time Signatures

Take a look at the below bar - where are the strong beats?

In a 3/4 bar, the strong beats are quite clearly on the first of every two quavers, so this time signature would be considered a triple time signature as there are three main beats.

Take a look at the below bar:

As you can see, both of the bars above have the same amount of quavers but the time signature has effected where the strong main beats land.

The 3/4 time signature was a triple time signature because there were three strong beats in the bar! But the 6/8 time signature will be a duple time signature because there are only two main beats in the bar!

This is now where our descriptions of simple and compound come into play. 

As you can see the above two bars have the same amount of quavers but the difference in their time signatures effects how we play the bar.

How do we know if a piece is in simple time?

Simple time signatures are among the most common time signatures you will see in your music. They are the time signatures that are the easiest to count!

 

A simple time signature's beats can be divided into two. These time signatures are extremely regular.

Think back to our 3/4 bar and where the strong beats land.

Notice how inside each main beat (or strong beat) there are two quavers.
 

In a simple time signature the beats can always easily be divided into halves and quarters!

More examples

As you can see, each beat here divides into two! There are two crotchets in a minim.
We also have three main beats in each bar, and so this time signature would be considered a simple triple time signature.
Each beat in this melody also divides into two. There are two quavers in a crotchet.
We also have two main beats in each bar, and so this time signature would be considered a simple duple time signature.
Each beat in this melody divides into two. There are two crotchets in a minim.
We also have four main beats in each bar, and so this time signature would be considered a simple quadruple time signature.

Compound Time Signatures

Compound time always causes a lot of confusion among music students. But it is actually really simple!

 

Let's consider what we saw earlier - 

What do you notice about where the accents are?

 

The accents in the 3/4 time signature, landed on every two quavers. This made that time signature a simple triple time signature!

Now look at the 6/8 – where do the strong beats land here?

The strong beats land every three quaver beats. So there are two beats per bar.

6/8 is what we call a compound time signature! A Compound Duple time signature to be more specific. (Notice there are only two strong beats = duple)

A compound time signature is where the main beats can be easily divided into three!

More examples

As you can see each main beats in the above melody in 6/4 divides into three.
There are three crotchets within every strong beat (a dotted minim). There are also two main beats in each bar and so this time signature would be considered a compound duple time signature.
The above melody is written in 9/8. As you can see each beat here also divides into three. Three quavers within every strong beat (a dotted crotchet). There are three main beats in the bar and therefore this time signature would be considered a compound triple time signature.
This above melody is written in 12/8. Each beat in this time signature also divides into three! Three quavers in a dotted crotchet. We also have four main beats in each bar, meaning that this time signature is a compound quadruple time signature.

Test your Knowledge with our free Time Signature Quiz

Remember!

Simple Time Signature
 
– Top Number can be 2, 3 or 4.
– The Main Beat will always divide into two. 

 

Compound Time Signature

– Top Number can be 6, 9 or 12.

– The Main Beat will always divide into three.

 

The table below shows the more common regular time signatures. 

How to Count in Compound Time
When counting in compound time signatures we must be very aware of the main beats and how the bar is divided.
 
For example, is it a duple time signature, a triple time signature or a quadruple time signature? 
 
Knowing this will tell you how many beats in a bar you should count. 
 
Make sure to read the compound time signature section carefully to find out more! 

Irregular Time Signatures

An irregular time signature cannot be subdivided into any of the regular groups, duple, triple or quadruple. This is because the top number cannot be divided equally into two, three or four. They can also be called complex time signatures.

 

The number on the top of the time signature (the one that tells you how many beats) will not be able to be divided into equal groups. This is because the number is not a multiple of 2, 3 or 4!

Common Irregular Time Signatures

Some common irregular time signatures that you should familiarize yourself with are:
If you would like to know more about these time signatures, check out our blog article just on irregular time signatures.

FAQs

What's the difference between the tempo and a time signature?

Tempo is the speed at which you play the piece, the time signature tells you the rhythmic structure of the music. We could play the same piece of music, with the same time signatures at a variety of tempos (or speeds). Often this may be shown with a beats per minute symbol at the start of the music. The tempo can also vary throughout the music and this can be shown with performance directions such as allegro and adagio.

Can I rewrite music in another time signature?

Yes you can! As part of ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory you need to be able to rewrite music from simple to compound time. This is covered in detail in our Music Theory Foundations Grade 5 book, available on Amazon and at Chimes Book Store

Do pieces have to have a time signature?

Occasionally you may come across a piece of music that has does not have a time signature. These tend to be contemporary pieces, or sounds tracks to films. Listen out for contemporary such as Ferneyhough, Steve Reich and Schoenberg. If a piece has no time signature it is said to be played in free time!
Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.
 
She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies. 
Get Your Free Revision Guide for Grade 5 Music Theory!
Lay your foundations for Grade 5 Music Theory with this summary of each topic.
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Lay your foundations for Grade 5 Music Theory with this summary of each topic.
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