Music Theory: Time Signatures Explained

Time signatures help us understand the rhythm of a piece of music.

The time signature is one of the most important elements of learning a new piece of music. It tells us how the music is organized on the page. And that may give us hints about the style and feel of the piece.

And luckily, time signatures are easy when you know how they work.


How Music is Organized on the Page

Most music notation includes bar lines.

music measure or bar

Music is organized in bars, or measures, separated by barlines.

Barlines divide music into small sections. These small sections help us keep our place as we play, and may also outline the pulse of the music. The section between barlines is called a measure, or bar.

Each measure contains the same number of beats, which is notated by the time signature.

The Time Signature in Music

What is a time signature? The time signature tells us how many beats are in each measure and what type of note is counted.

Appearing at the very beginning of a piece of music, it consists of two numbers, one above the other. Each number tells us a valuable piece of information.

So before playing the first note, we should take a look at the numbers in the time signature.

The Numbers Explained

time signature

Time signature numbers explained

The top number tells us the number of beats in each measure.

When counting, this is the number to which we will count. This could be any number, but it is usually 3, 4, or 6.

9 and 12 are also common in African music. But this could be any number.

The bottom number tells us which type of note is counted.

In the bottom number of the time signature,

  • 1 denotes a whole note.
  • 2 denotes a half note.
  • 4 denotes a quarter note.
  • 8 denotes an eighth note.
  • We sometimes see 16 or 32. But not often.

The bottom number can only be one of these. That is because it refers to a specific note value. So we will never see, for example, a 5 on the bottom of the time signature.

The Most Common Time Signatures

In western music, some time signatures or more popular than others.

The most popular are 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. This sounds “right” to those of us who grew up listening to Western music. Other cultures have other norms and have become comfortable with other time signatures.

When first learning to read music, we usually see the more common ones.

Mixed Meter Music

The time signature may change within a piece of music.

When this happens, we call it “mixed meter.” The number of beats per measure may change for different sections of music. Or it may be just a short deviation from the norm and immediately return to the primary one.

Mixed meter is not common in popular Music or the most frequently heard classical pieces.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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