Time Signatures


Below you will find links to different sections of this page providing guides and examples of different time signatures you will inevitably encounter throughout your musical journey.

I will break them up into different categories, with the goal being to provide a beneficial reference for anyone who is unsure of how a particular time signature works. This list will likely expand over time.

In addition, I will explain exactly what common time, half time, double time, and cut time are and how they work, as I know these terms were confusing to me when I first started learning music theory.

Unless otherwise stated, all sound clips will consist of two bars of music and are set at 100 bpm.

Simple time signatures or simple meter, are terms used for time signatures where each beat of the measure can be divided into twos.

Compound time or compound meter, as we’ll discuss later on, are terms used for time signatures where each beat of the measure divides into threes.


Time signatures. Common-time

Common-time is simply another way of saying 4/4 time, and as the name implies, is the most common time signature found in music.

You’ll find this time signature used in virtually every genre of music including country, folk, blues, rock, hip-hop, metal, and EDM (think trap, house, or dubstep for example).

EDM (electronic dance music) in particular, relies heavily on this time signature. The reason for this is that two songs in 4/4 time are much easier for an average DJ to mix, rather than one song in 4/4, and one song in say 3/4.

Also, 4/4 time just feels more natural to us as humans when a time signature is divisible by 2. We have two hands and two feet, and thus we naturally count in pairs of two.

Progressive rock, progressive metal, and experimental music tend to utilize different or more complex time signatures more often than the previous genres mentioned. This is not to say that other genres don’t use anything but common time, I’m simply saying that common time is used more often than not.


The easiest way to understand half-time is to begin with a solid understanding of regular-time, which is to say that the backbeats (usually the snare drum) fall on beats two and four and the kick drum falls on beats one and three of a 4/4 piece of music.

So with that knowledge, playing in half-time means playing the snare and bass drum half as often.

In other words, instead of playing two beats on the snare and two beats on the bass drum per measure, you will only be playing one beat each per measure.

Now that we are playing in half-time, the bass drum falls on beat one and the snare drum falls on beat three. Typically, the hi-hat in a traditional rock beat playing in half-time will keep the same tempo to keep the track moving forward.

What this essentially does, is give the illusion that the song has slowed down. However, this can be an area of confusion for some people, as the song may feel slower because the backbeats are playing half as fast, but the tempo of the song remains unchanged.

You can also think of half-time as taking one bar of 4/4 and spreading it out across two bars of 4/4. Just remember to keep the same tempo on the hi-hat(or whatever cymbal you are using). This essentially halves the feeling of the rhythm. You may notice that quarter notes now sound like eighth notes.

If you’re a fan of metal like I am, you might notice a half-time groove going on in some of those breakdowns.


Now that we’re familiar with half-time, let’s move on to double-time. If you haven’t guessed already, the bass drum and the snare drum are going to play twice as fast as common time.

Half-time means the snare and bass drum play half as fast, and double-time means the snare and bass drum play twice as fast!

Again, the tempo hasn’t changed, but double time gives the illusion that the tempo has increased when in reality it is still the same.

The bass drum lands on every downbeat and the snare drum lands on every upbeat, or the “and” if you are counting in eighth notes.


Time signatures. Cut-time

Cut time (also known as alla breve) is a bit like 4/4 time, but there are some important differences. Cut time is actually 2/2 time. This means there are two half notes per bar, each half note getting one beat.

If you’re asking yourself what the point of using cut-time is as opposed to just using 2/4, well the answer is, it’s easier to read. Basically, in cut time, every note value gets chopped in half.

For example, a whole note which usually takes up four beats when used in 4/4, is now worth only two beats in cut-time. A half note which took up two beats in 4/4, now only gets one beat. Quarter notes now sound like what you would recognize to be eighth notes in 4/4.

This makes cut time easier to read because there are fewer beats per measure, making it less cluttered and therefore easier on the eyes.

This wouldn’t matter so much during a slow piece of music, but the ease of reading cut time can really make a difference during a fast piece of music.

It’s important to understand that cut-time in no way changes the tempo. That is defined by the BPM (beats per minute) of the song. I believe the confusion arises because in cut time the values of each note are halved, therefore the BPM is halved as well.

A 150 BPM piece of music in cut-time would be a blistering 300 BPM in 4/4 time. Any conductor trying to conduct that might be in danger of flying away!

Fun fact!

Chances are, you assume the “C” in the time signatures stands for “common” or “cut”. But that’s not right. There is some history behind the symbol, and if you’re curious to learn more, I would recommend you check it out at the following link: My Music Theory


A simple time signature which can be counted as:

one-two, one-two, if playing quarter notes.

one-and, two-and, one-and, two-and, if playing eighth notes.

one-e-and-uh, two-e-and-uh, one-e-and-uh, two-e-and-uh, if playing sixteenth notes.

That is the general feel of 2/4.


3/4 time is known as simple triple time, as there are 3 beats (triple) in every bar. Each of those beats can then be divided into two beats (simple).

Some examples of simple triple include 3/4, 3/8, and 3/2.

3/4 can be counted as:

one-two-three, one-two-three, if playing quarter notes.

one-and, two-and, three-and, one-and, two-and, three-and, if playing eighth notes.

one-e-and-uh, two-e-and-uh, three-e-and-uh, one-e-and-uh, two-e-and-uh, three-e-and-uh, if playing sixteenth notes.

That is the general feel of 3/4.


The most common time signature used.

It can be counted the same as the previous examples, but counting out four beats as opposed to two or three.

See common-time above: common-time


See cut-time above: cut-time

Compound time signatures are derived by separating the beats of a measure into groups of three notes as opposed to simple meter’s groups of two notes.

It’s important to keep in mind that beats and notes are not the same thing. The beat is what drives the song forward.

Commonly used compound time signatures include 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8.

You might have also seen 6/4 or 12/16 time signatures. These are also compound time signatures, but they might take a little more understanding before they make sense. We’ll discuss those a little later.

Something else to be aware of:

Time signatures with a “6” on the top are known as compound duple because they consist of two groups of three.

Time signatures with a “9” on top are known as compound triple because they consist of three groups of three.

Time signatures with a “12” on top are known as compound quadruple because they consist of four groups of three.


Time signatures. 6/8 time.

This is a very common time signature and it is closely related to 6/4. The only difference being that 6/8 has two groups of 8th note triplets, whereas 6/4 has two groups of three quarter notes.

Compound time signatures are different in the fact that the top number isn’t the number of beats per measure, but rather the number of notes. As you can see above, each beat unit is equal to the duration of three eighth notes. To put it another way, 6/8 contains two beats per measure. This means a dotted quarter note gets one beat.

6/8 implies a bit of a swing feel by accenting notes 1 and 4.

It could be counted as:

one-and-uh, two-and-uh, one-and-uh, two-and-uh.

one-trip-let, two-trip-let, one-trip-let, two-trip-let

But it could also be counted as:

one-two-three-four-five-six, one-two-three-four-five-six


Time signatures. 9/8 time.

9/8 is another compound meter. It is just like 6/8 but with one more group of three 8th note triplets, giving it an additional beat, for a total of three beats per measure.

It could be counted as:

one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three, and uh, one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three, and uh

one-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let, one-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let


Time signatures. 12/8 time.

12/8 contains one more group of three 8th note triplets bringing the beat count to four. Four beats and four groups of three 8th note triplets.

It could be counted as:

one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three, and uh, four-and-uh, one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh


one-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let, four-trip-let, one-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let, four-trip-let


Time signatures. 6/4 time.

6/4 and 6/8 are very similar. They both contain two strong beats per measure, and each of those beats are divided into three. The only difference between the two time signatures is that 6/4 has six quarter notes whereas 6/8 has six 8th notes.

In 6/4, the quarter notes are grouped into two beats. Each of these beats is worth a dotted half note.

6/4 is a compound duple time signature. It is a compound time signature because each beat is divided into three quarter notes, and it is a duple because there are two beats per measure

As a rule of thumb, 6/8 can be used for faster pieces, while 6/4 can be used for slower pieces.


Time signatures. 12/16 time.

in 12/16 time, every measure (bar) is made up of twelve 16th notes. The notes are grouped into four strong beats, each one being the equivalent of a dotted 8th note.

12/16 is a compound quadruple time signature as it contains four strong beats (quadruple), with each beat divided into three (compound).

12/16 time can be counted exactly as you would count 12/8 as shown in the examples above.

It could be counted as:

one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three, and uh, four-and-uh, one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh


one-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let, four-trip-let, one-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let, four-trip-let

Complex time signatures (also called irregular time signatures) started becoming more prevalent during the nineteenth century. These types of time signatures don’t follow common duple or triple meter patterns, but instead blend both types in addition to single notes that may not be grouped with others.


Time signatures. 5/4 time.

Think of 5/4 time as simply 4/4 time with an extra beat added at the end. This makes a total of 5 quarter notes per measure.

As with many irregular or complex beats, you might find the 5/4 time signature to feel a bit abrupt. If you are just getting into learning about complex time signatures, 5/4 is a great place to start.

5/4 is a complex time signature because the notes are split into one group of three beats, and one group of two beats. Typically there will be two strong beats, and they will usually fall on beats 1 and 4, or beats 1 and 3.

It could be counted as:

one-two-three-four-five, one-two-three-four-five


one-two-three-four-five, one-two-three-four-five

Or you could also count it as:

one-two-one-two-three, one-two-one-two-three


one-two-three-one-two, one-two-three-one-two


Time signatures. 11/4 time.

11/4 is a complex time signature that consists of eleven quarter notes per bar. There are many different ways you might want to count 11/4, but I would highly advise against just counting the numbers one through eleven.

The main reason is that when you try and count beats seven and eleven, you might just hit two notes instead of one, because both of those numbers are pronounced with two syllables.

Better ways of counting 11/4 include:

one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two

one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two


one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three


Time signatures. 7/8 time.

7/8 is a well-known time signature in classical music, but it is also sometimes used in popular music today.

The measures consist of seven 8th notes and they are typically arranged in two groups of two 8th notes, and one group of three 8th note triplets.

The above time signature could just as easily be written with the three 8th note triplets at the end of the measure instead of the beginning. In fact, it is often counted that way. Due to its irregular counting pattern, 7/8 can make music feel out of step.

Another way of putting it is that 7/8 time consists of two simple beats and one compound beat. It doesn’t matter what order you play the beats in. If you wanted to play one simple beat (two 8th notes) and then the compound beat (three 8th note triplets) followed by another simple beat, go for it. Making it musical is the ultimate goal.

It could be counted as:

one-two, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two-three


one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two

Or you can mix it up:

one-two-three, one-two-three, one, one-two-three, one-two-three, one


one-two-three, one-two-three, one, one-two-three, one-two-three, one


Time signatures. 13/8 time.

13/8 can be broken into a number of different patterns. However, regardless of the way you split the notes up, it will most likely always sound more chaotic than 13/4 which contains 13 stand alone quarter notes.

13/8 can be made up of six groupings of two 8th notes, plus one single 8th note at the end.

It could also be made up of three groupings of three 8th note triplets plus one group of four 8th notes.

You could also think of it as three groups of four 8th notes with a single 8th note at the end.

As you can see, there are a few different ways of approaching this time signature.

Some of the ways you could count it would be:

one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three-four, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three-four


one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one

one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one


one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one

one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two, one

I feel I should say that the last example is not one that I’m sold on as I feel it would be easy to lose count of where you are in the measure. Nonetheless, it is there for educational purposes.

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: What is a DAW? – What Does DAW stand for?

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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