Have you ever wondered how your favorite songs keep such a steady beat? Or why do some songs just sound “off” to your ear? Time signatures are likely to blame!
If you’re new to music theory, it’s important to learn the basic lessons about time signatures. Once you understand time signatures and meters, you’ll be able to better appreciate the music you listen to – and maybe even create your own!
The Link Between Music and Time
Music exists in and occupies time (it is something that happens over a period of time). That may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s worth thinking about for a minute. We often think of music as something that happens in space – the notes on a page, the positions of our hands on an instrument, the sound waves moving through the air. But really, all of those things are just ways of representing music’s true nature, which is as a sequence of events happening in time.
This understanding of music as a time-based art form has important implications for the way we create and perform it. One of the most important of these is the way we divide up time in order to create rhythm. This division of time is what we call a meter, and it’s usually represented by a time signature.
Five Lessons About Time Signatures
If you want to be a great musician, it’s important that you understand time signatures. Here are five key lessons on the topic:
- What is a Time Signature?
- Meters and Rhythm
- Music Note Values
- Common Time Signatures in Music
- Meter Classifications
What is a Time Signature?
Think about it this way: if you tap your foot to a song, you’re keeping time. If you clap your hands along with the music, you’re keeping time. When a drummer plays their drums, they’re keeping time. Everyone in the band is playing their instrument and keeping time together.
A time signature is a symbol at the beginning of a piece of sheet music that tells the performer(s) the meter of the piece. The meter is the regular pattern of strong and weak beats that gives a piece its rhythmic character. In simple terms, it’s the number of beats in a measure.
The time signature consists of two numbers:
- The top number tells how many beats are in a measure.
- The bottom number tells what kind of note gets one beat.
For example, a time signature of “four four” means that there are four beats in a measure, and that a quarter note gets one beat. This is probably the most common time signature you’ll see, as it’s used in many popular styles of music such as rock, pop, and folk.
Meters and Rhythm
Meter is the perfect way to discuss how music moves through time. It is a time-based metric that measures how music progresses from one period to the next. Rhythm is the pattern of long and short sounds and silences in music.
The relationship between meter and rhythm is similar to the relationship between a ruler and the objects being measured by that ruler. Just as a foot ruler will measure different lengths than a yardstick, so too will musical meters subdivide time into different durations depending on its own unique properties.
In other words, a meter is like the “ruler” that we use to measure the length of time, and rhythm is like the “objects” being measured by that ruler.
Measure or a bar is a section of time defined by a given number of beats. The number of beats in a measure is determined by the time signature. For example, in “four four” time, there are four quarter note beats per measure. In “six eight” time, there are six eighth note beats per measure.
Music Note Values
In order to understand how time signatures work, you need to know a little bit about music notation. In particular, you need to know about note values.
A note value is the amount of time that a note is held for. The most common note values you’ll see are:
- Whole notes (semibreve) – held for four beats
- Half notes (minim) – two beats
- Quarter notes (crotchet) – one beat
- Eighth notes (quaver) – half a beat
- Sixteenth notes – quarter of a beat
There are also note values that are even shorter, such as 32nd notes and 64th notes, but we won’t worry about those for now.
Common Time Signatures in Music
Two-four time, 2/4: It’s simple to count since there are only two beats in a measure, and each quarter note equals one beat. You can count “ONE-two” for each measure where count ONE is a downbeat that gets the accent. The time signature can be seen in many different types of music, such as marching bands, polkas, and galops.
Three-four time, 3/4: This time signature has three quarter notes, which means there are three beats in a measure. The most common way to count this time signature is “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three.” This time signature is also called waltz time. Waltzes, minuets, mazurkas, polonaises, scherzi, country & western ballads, R&B, and some popular music use the time signature.
Four-four time, 4/4: Also called common time, notated with a “C”, is probably the most popular time signature. It’s simple to count since there are only four beats in a measure, and each quarter note equals one beat. For each measure where the accent is on ONE, you can count “ONE-two-three-four.” Many genres of popular music, such as rock and blues, funk, country, and pop typically use 4/4 time.
Two-two time, 2/2: This time signature has two half notes, which means there are two beats in a measure. This time signature can also be notated with a “C” with a vertical line through it. It is mostly used for marches, as well as fast orchestral pieces.
Three-eight time, 3/8: There are three eighth notes in each measure. The common way to count this time signature is “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three.” The time signature is often a faster tempo or shorter hypermeter indicated. Folk dances, such as the cachucha, occasionally use this time signature.
Six-eight time, 6/8: There are six eighth notes in each measure. The common way to count this time signature 6/8 in a measure is “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three”. This time signature is used in various types of music such as marches, polkas, and some rock music.
Nine-eight time, 9/8: There are nine eighth notes in each measure. The common way to count this time signature is “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three.” It is also known as compound triple meter because there are three groups of three beats. This time signature is found in slip jigs of Irish music and dance, Greek folk zeibekiko, and lullabies.
Twelve-eight time, 12/8: There are twelve eighth notes in each measure. It is also known as compound quadruple meter because there are four groups of three beats. A variety of musical genres utilize this time signature, including rock music, doo-woop and slow blues (where it is referred to as a shuffle).
Of the seven common time signatures, only two are notated with letters in the meter: common time 4/4 and cut time 2/2. All other time signatures use numbers to indicate both the number of beats per measure and which note value equals one beat.
Time signatures are divided into three categories: simple, compound, and complex.
- Simple Time Signatures
The time signatures in this category have one, two, three or four beats per measure. The most common simple time signatures are: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, and 3/8. These are either in simple duple (two beats), simple triple (three beats), and simple quadruple (four beats) meter.
- Compound Time Signatures
The time signatures in this category have six, nine, or twelve beats per measure. The most common compound time signatures are: 12/eight (compound quadruple), nine/eight (compound triple), and six/eight (compound duple).
- Complex Time Signatures
The time signatures in this category have an irregular number of beats per measure that cannot be evenly divided, or they do not fit the usual duple or triple categories. They are also called irregular or odd time signatures. Complex time signatures include 5/4, 11/4, 7/8, 11/eight, and 13/eight.
The second level of classification for meters is the number of beats in a measure. The three most common are duple, triple and quadruple. Duple meter has two beats per measure, triple meter has three beats, and quadruple meter has four beats.
The Benefits of Learning About Time Signatures
Understanding time signatures and meters can help you:
- Better appreciate the music you listen to
- Understand how to read sheet music
- Create your own music!
Not only that, but understanding time signatures can also help you with your sense of rhythm. This is because once you know how many beats there are in a measure, it’s easier to keep track of where you are in the song.
What time is it?
That’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point in the day. We’ve all asked ourselves this question at some time or another. When it comes to music, being aware of time signatures is crucial – not just what they are, but how they work as well.
Keeping time is critical whether you’re performing solo or in a group. Time signatures are one of the ways we keep time in music. It brings unity and helps us count so we can all come in at the right time. A well-organized sound gives a song more structure, beauty and makes it easier for the listener to follow along.
So next time you find yourself wondering what time it is, take a moment to think about time signatures and how they help us keep track of time in music! Who knows, you might just find yourself enjoying the music a little bit more.
Always be aware of the time, and practice playing in time!