What is Time Signature?
To understand note duration, you first must understand time signature. The time signature is usually written at the beginning of a song or tab, although it isn’t always specified.
It’s usually composed of two numbers, one on top of the other, and looks something like this:
The Top Number
You can think of time signature as a fraction. Both the top and the bottom number tell us something different about the musical piece.
So, what does the top number mean?
Simply put, the top number tells you how many beats are in a measure.
The beat is the base unit for music, and is the concept upon which rhythm is based. The beat is a rhythmic event that repeats a certain number of times throughout each measure.
Look at the time signature above: 4/4 (pronounced “four-four”) time.
The four in the numerator tells us that there are four beats in a measure.
If the top number was instead a two, we’d know that there were two beats in a measure. If it was a three, then there would be three beats.
The Bottom Number
This begs the question…what’s counted as a beat? We said that it was the base unit of rhythm, but we didn’t specify what kind of note is considered “one beat.”
Conveniently, this is what the bottom number in a time signature tells us: the type of note that’s designated as a single beat.
Going back to the fraction analogy, consider 4/4 time. The denominator is a four, which suggests fourths (or quarters). Perhaps…quarter notes?
This is, in fact, the meaning of the time signature. If the denominator is a four, a quarter note will be the beat unit. Alternatively, if the bottom number is a two, a half note will be considered one beat.
What about a one or an eight? A whole note and eighth note, respectively.
Side note: If you’re unfamiliar with quarter and half notes, you may want to check out our guide to note durations to learn about these.
Whatever the bottom number is, this is the type of note that is counted as one beat.
Based on this information, we can easily figure out what 4/4 time means: There are four beats per measure, and a quarter note is worth one beat.
Put in other words, there are four quarter notes per measure, or their rhythmic equivalent (one whole note, two half notes, eight eighth notes, etc.)
Time signature is pretty straightforward then, right? Well, yes…up until a certain point. With the introduction of meter, time signature starts to seem a bit convoluted.
Never fear, though. We’ll break down the concept of meter and make it as easy as possible to follow.
What is meter?
Simply put, meter is a way of breaking down music even further. Instead of looking at just beats, we can divide these beats down into groups of two or three “sub-beats.”
These sub-beats occur naturally in music, and meter puts a name to it.
Think of it this way: In 4/4 time we know that there are four beats in a measure, but we can further divide these into groups of two. Essentially, there are eight equal sub-beats in a measure in four-four time, each of these worth one eighth note.
Musicians commonly use the word “and” to specify this second half of the beat. For instance, in 4/4 time you may be inclined to count:
“1, 2, 3, 4.”
But you could also verbalize this as
“1 and 2 and 3 and 4.”
This gives each beat two sub-beats, and divides the music into more manageable portions.
There are two main ways of dividing notes: simple and compound meter.
Simple meter can be identified by the top number of the time signature. The most common “numerators” for time signatures in simple meter are 2, 3, and 4.
That’s all well and good, but what is simple meter?
Simply put, simple meter is a type of meter that divides each beat into two “sub-beats.”
Remember how we talked about using “and” to count beats? This is an instance of simple meter, dividing each beat into two sub-beats or spoken syllables.
As you can see above, the measure above still has four beats, but we’ve further divided each one into two sub-beats. That’s all simple meter is.
On the other hand, compound meter divides even further. Look at 6/8 time. In a literal sense, there are 6 beats per measure, and an eighth note is worth one beat.
For the purpose of compound meter, however, there are considered to be two beats per measure.
You see, the eighth notes are lumped into groups of three, and each of these groups are considered to be one beat.
This division is often verbalized as:
One and a Two and a…
…like the example below.
Or, to put it a different way, a dotted quarter note is considered a “beat,” while the eighth notes are considered a third of a beat.
This grouping of triplets gives compound meter an entirely different feel than simple meter.
You can tell that a time signature represents a compound meter by its “numerator.” If the top number of the time signature is 6, 9, or 12, the piece is in compound meter.
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The top number has to be divisible by three, since each “beat” needs to be divided in three.
Duple, Triple, and Quadruple Meter
Both simple and compound meters can be lumped into one of three categories:
Duple, Triple, and Quadruple
These prefixes tell us how many beats are in a measure. The meaning is pretty intuitive:
- Duple indicates two beats per measure.
- Triple tells us there are three beats per measure.
- Quadruple tells us there are four.
Look at the time signature above. We can see that it’s 9/8 time, and that it’s in compound meter (the top number is a 9).
How do we know which category it falls into, though?
The rule is pretty simple:
- In simple meter, the top number is the literal number of beats in the measure.
- In compound meter, the top number is the the number of beats in the measure times three.
For simple meter, 2/4 would be simple duple, 3/4 simple triple, and 4/4 simple quadruple. Remember, the “denominator” doesn’t affect meter, so the same would apply to 2/8, 3/16, and 4/1.
On the side of compound meter 6/8 is compound duple (since 6÷3 is 2), 9/8 is compound triple, and 12/8 is compound quadruple. Once again, the denominator is irrelevant.
Pretty simple, right?
What are the most common time signatures?
Let’s look at some of the most common time signatures you’ll come across in music.
4/4 is indisputably the most popular time signature. So popular, in fact, that it’s known as “common time” and can be represented in music by a large C.
Consequently, 4/4 time is also the most common type of simple quadruple meter.
What songs are in 4/4 time?
Just a few notable songs written in 4/4 time include:
- Ramblin’ Man by the Allman Brothers
- Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones
- Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
- Hotel California by the Eagles
The list goes on and on; common time is most bands’ preferred time signature.
3/4 is also known as “waltz time” since most waltzes use some form of simple triple meter, and 3/4 is the most popular.
What songs are in 3/4 time?
That’s not to say that 3/4 is reserved for waltzes. It’s been used in some big hits. Here’s a few of the most popular songs written in 3/4:
- Take It To the Limit by the Eagles
- The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan
- Mr. Bojangles by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
- El Paso by Marty Robbins
3/4 time certainly isn’t quite as common as 4/4, but it’s still a fairly popular time signature.
6/8 time (a type of compound duple meter) is popular among songwriters, and is certainly the most common compound time signature in music.
What songs are in 6/8 time?
You won’t have to look too far to find a song you like in 6/8 time. Here are a few examples:
- House of the Rising Sun by the Animals
- Nothing Else Matters by Metallica
- We Are the Champions by Queen
We hope that you have a better understanding of time signature than you did when you came here, and perhaps a new appreciation for it.
If you want to look further into time signatures, we recommend checking out our tabs. You can see what time signature each piece is written in, and we have a tab for nearly any song you can think of.