How do Time Signatures Work? The Ultimate Beginners Guide

How do Time Signatures Work? Sheet music

Hello and welcome!

If you’re here today because you’re a brand new musician or are simply confused by those two stacked numbers at the beginning of a piece of sheet music, then you’ve come to the right place!

You might be scratching your head, wondering what kind of arcane language was happening on that piece of paper.

Naturally, you fired up Google and asked it what those numbers meant, and then you just happened to land on this site.

So, how do time signatures work? Great question. Let’s get that answered for you in this article, and I promise I’ll make it as painless as possible.

The basics of time signatures

Having a solid understanding of how time signatures work is essential to understanding musical notation and the rhythm of a particular piece of music. So, don’t let those numbers at the beginning of the first bar of music intimidate you—they are there for a specific reason.

4/4 time is by far the most commonly used time signature, at least in western music.

And by that, I mean western as in the Americas, not western as in country western. Although I’m pretty certain it’s the case for country western music as well.

Anyway, moving on…

4/4 music is so common in fact, that it can simply be called common time and it can be notated by the letter “C” as opposed to 4/4

So let’s break this down. I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how easy it actually is.

How do Time Signatures Work? Sheet music
The time signature for the piece of sheet music above, indicates that that particular section is in two-four time. That means there are 2 quarter notes per bar. Each quarter note is split up into 4 notes connected with 2 beams at the bottom.

The top number tells you how many beats are in one bar (also called a measure) of music. Super simple right?

The bottom number represents what note value gets one beat. That might seem a little confusing, but trust me, it sounds way more complicated than it really is.

The most common numbers you will run across for the bottom number are: 2, 4, and 8.

If you see a time signature that looks like this: 5/4

That is pronounced five-four time and all it means is that you need to play five quarter notes (or any combination of notes that total the value of five quarter notes) per bar of music.

The heaviest accent generally falls on the first beat of the measure. In fact, the accent of the note is what determines where the measure begins.

If this is kind of making sense, but it’s not fully clicking, or you’re not sure how to count out each bar, I’ll give some examples below:

4/4 is usually counted One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, etc.

4/4 can also be counted: One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, etc.

5/4 is usually counted One-two-three-four-five, One-two-three-four-five, etc.

6/8 can be, but is not always counted One-two-three-four-five-six, One-two-three-four-five-six, etc.

In compound meters (which we will discuss below), a lesser accent usually marks the beginning of the second half of the measure. An example would be the 4th beat in 6/8 time. You may have noticed that in the example above.

As long as you have a basic understanding of note values, you should have everything you need to start understanding what time signatures mean.

How do Time Signatures Work? Home studio

How many types of time signatures are there?

Time signature come in three basic types: simple, compound, and complex.

Simple: The most common simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. You will see 2/2 as well, but it’s used mainly in marches or musical theatre music.

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the letter “C” will be used in place of 4/4. Regardless of which one is used, they both indicate that there are 4 quarter note beats per bar.

Fun fact. The “C” used for common time doesn’t actually stand for ‘common’. It’s actually an incomplete circle that the church in Europe used to represent a time signature that wasn’t in their beloved 3/4 time signature. That was represented by a full circle.

Compound: Commonly used compound time signatures include 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. You might also for example, run across 6/4 or 12/16 time signatures. Compound time signatures are recognized by the fact that they have groupings of three notes each.

Time signatures with a “6” on the top are known as compound duple. Time signatures with a “9” on top are known as compound triple. Time signatures with a “12” on top are known as compound quadruple.

Complex: Complex time signatures typically weren’t used as often prior to the nineteenth century. These types of time signatures don’t follow common duple or triple meters. Some examples of complex time signatures include: 5/4, 7/8, 11/4. Even 13/8 or 17/8 as rarely as they are used, are great examples of this type of time signature.

Final thoughts on “How do Time Signatures Work?”

Learning how time signatures work is something I feel is a great example of something simple that people can be intimidated by. I feel that many new musicians try to ignore it for as long as they can.

Perhaps they hope it is something they can kind of glide right past, but unfortunately it’s something every musician will have to learn at some point in their musical careers.

And in the end, it’s actually super simple how time signatures work!

So don’t let those numbers trip you up any longer. Learn some new time signatures. Start playing along to a 7/4 groove. Whatever it takes, just try playing something outside of your comfort zone. It might feel odd at first, but you’ll get it in no time!

What to do next?

If you are brand new to music, music production or are interested in learning to play the drums, you can check out my article: How to Hold Drumsticks

You might also want to check out this article: Acoustic Vs. Electronic Drums – Which One is Right for You?

If you are looking at buying your first drum set or any other musical instrument for that matter, take a look at Zzounds. They have a variety of acoustic drum sets and electronic drum sets for purchase.

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Andrew has been a life long lover of music. Although starting his musical journey on the guitar, (we won't talk about his skills on that particular instrument) he found his true passion was for drumming and making music to share with others. He also enjoys writing blog posts about off the wall subjects that are very much real—such as Bigfoot, UFOs, and what's up with European mayonnaise. Why is it sweet???
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