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Blog overview

How to read time signatures

Anja, in Music lessons
Oct 17, 2022 | 8 min read

You’re pretty sure you know basic math, yet these numbers still don’t add up. Still unsure about how to read time signatures? Scroll down for a complete time signature breakdown and a little quiz at the end!

What is time signature?

Simply put, time signature tells you how many and what kind of beats there are in each bar. However, it doesn’t have anything to do with the tempo of the piece, so be careful not to mix up the two!

Nowadays, there is little to no limit to what a time signature can be. They go from your basic 4/4 to your extra 256/32. The latter is a one-of-a-kind example, so we’ll stick to more traditional time signatures.

Time signature can vary within a piece. Multiple time signatures can alternate from bar to bar, or you can find an alien time signature in the middle of a page.

What do the numbers mean?

This is the easy bit. The number on top indicates the number of pulses, while the number on the bottom tells you what the pulse actually is (a quarter note, an eighth, etc):

The top number can be anything, but it’s usually 2,3 or 4, or 6,9, or 12

The bottom number can also be anything if you’re a contemporary composer, but usually, you’ll see 2, 4, or 8. These three have distinct meanings: 2 stands for half note, 4 for quarter note, and 8 for eighth note. It continues past 8, with 16 standing for 16th notes, 32 for 32nd notes, etc.

Here are a few examples:

Simple, compound, dupe

While the information above is sufficient to figure out basic time signatures, you might want to get familiar with a few more terms.

  • Simple vs compound meter

In simple meter, the value of the beat can be divided by 2. The beat can be any non dotted value. For example, in X/4 the beat is a quarter note, which can be divided into 2 eighth notes. This is the same with X/2, where the beat is a half note and can be divided into 2 quarter notes.

In compound meter, you can divide the value of the beat by 3. The beat is a dotted value. It’s the case for 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 time signatures where the beat is a dotted quarter note, consisting of 3 eighth notes. 

The difference between them is the intonation you feel when you play or listen to these two meters. Because of the 2 and 3 subdivisions, simple meter tends to be a bit more rigid, while compound can feel more fluid. Here is a chart that sums it up:

There are situations where you can choose between simple and compound meter. For example, 6/4 means there are 6 quarter notes in a bar. But, it can also mean there are 2 dotted half notes since one dotted half note is equal to 3 quarter notes. It all comes down to how you want to feel your music or how the composer intended it. 

  • Duple, triple, and quadruple meters

This is fairly easy to grasp. Duple simply means there are two beats in a bar. It doesn’t matter if the beat is a dotted value or not. 2/2, 2/4, and 6/8 are duple meters.

Triple meter means there are three beats in a bar. 3/2, 3/4, and 9/8 are triple meters.

Quadruple meter means there are four beats in a bar. 4/2, 4/4, and 12/8 are quadruple meters.

It does go past four, but they are not as frequent.

  • C and ₵

You might have come across these two in sheet music. They are simply old time signature symbols, the first being a synonym of 4/4 and the latter 2/2.

Odd time signatures

If your time signature looks nothing like the ones previously mentioned, chances are it’s an odd, complex, asymmetric, or irregular time signature. This simply means it cannot be evenly divided into subdivisions of 2 or 3 like the ones in simple and compound meters. For example, 5/4 is an odd signature since 5 cannot be divided into 2 or 3, and the same goes for 11/8.

Here again, it is up to you or the composer to find out what the intonation should be. In 5/4, you can have a group of 2 and then a group of 3, or the opposite. In 11/8, you have more choices: 3-3-3-2, 2-3-2-2-2, or any other combination. Odd time signatures are commonly found in traditional music of the Balkans.

Quiz

Think you got it all figured out? Are you able to tell what the time signatures are? Test your knowledge with our little quiz.

Answers: 1. 3/4 2. 3/2 or 6/4 3. 6/8 4. 5/4 5. 4/4

Now that you’re able to identify time signatures with your eyes, it’s time to start identifying them with your ears! Check our article here.


Anja Drozdova is a Swiss-Russian musician and music teacher. She focuses on finding creative ways to engage students during piano and music theory lessons by using different mediums such as technology and visual arts. Anja also writes electronic pop music under the artist name Mlkshk. Her music is inspired by everyday life, scenes from childhood, and imaginary places, shapes and colors.

Soundbrenner is a company dedicated to helping musicians stay focused on what truly matters: their music. By creating innovative devices, such as Soundbrenner Pulse and Core, our goal is to deliver the best possible practice experience for musicians. Click here to find out more.

Got a question about Soundbrenner wearables? Reach out to us at [email protected], we’re happy to help!

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