One of the most basic definitions of music is pitch plus rhythm. So if you want to play music effectively and sharpen your music theory skills, then understanding how time signatures work in music notation and how to keep a steady beat is essential!
Here are some of the time signatures you’ll encounter most often in music:
Want to learn more about what time signatures are and how they work? Check out the definitions, descriptions, and frequently asked questions below!
Jump to Section:
- What is a time signature?
- How to read a time signature
- Types of Time Signatures
- Examples of Simple Meter
- Examples of Compound Meter
- Other Time Signatures
What is a time signature?
In music notation, the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure, and which note value to count as a beat. You can find the time signature at the beginning of a piece of music on the staff after the clef.
Although the time signature doesn’t exactly tell you the tempo of the music (how fast or slow), it does help you understand how to divide and phrase the rhythm of a piece.
Simply put, the purpose of the time signature is to tell you which beats to count, and how many of them are in each measure. As a result, you’ll be able to carefully count and “stay on beat” while playing the music.
How to read a time signature
Even though a time signature is just two numbers stacked on top of each other, it can still be confusing to read and think about! But don’t worry, I was terrible at math and fractions as a kid and I promise that time signatures aren’t that complex!
Time signatures have a top number and a bottom number. The top number indicates how many beats to count in a measure. In other words, how many beats per bar.
The bottom number tells you which note value you should be counting. In other words, this indicates which note gets the beat.
So if the bottom number is 4, that means you should be counting quarter notes. If the bottom note is 8, then you’ll count the eighth notes.
Here’s a quick guide to help you find which note value to count depending on the bottom number of the time signature:
In music, note value refers to the duration of a note. In other words, the note value is how long will the note sound should last for.
There’s many different note values and rules, and you can see what some of them look like in the chart above.
Let’s look at an example in 4/4 time, where you count four quarter beats per measure. From longest duration to shortest, here’s an example of note values you’re likely to see:
- Whole Note – a single note that lasts the entire 4-beat measure
- Half Note – a single note that lasts for 2 beats (half) of a 4-beat measure
- Quarter Note – a single note that lasts 1 beat (one quarter) of a 4-beat measure
- Eighth Note – a single note that lasts 1/8th of a 4-beat measure
- Sixteenth Note – a single note that lasts 1/6th of a 4-beat measure
There’s some note values with even faster durations, like 32nd notes, 64th notes, and even 128th notes. However, you won’t see those as often as the note values above.
Here’s a visual reference for the same example of how to count note values in 4/4 time:
The important thing to remember is that even though some of these notes have shorter durations, the tempo should remain consistent like the clicking of a metronome or a clock.
That said, it’s ok to change the tempo if the music indicates you should slow down with a fermata or retard, or speed up with an accelerando or a tempo marking. As grammy award-winning classical guitarist David Russell says, “don’t sound like a typewriter!”
Types of Time Signatures
In addition to the numbers, sometimes people refer to time signatures by their type: simple, compound, and complex.
Most often, you’ll encounter simple time signatures where beats divide into twos, or compound time signatures where beats divide into threes. Complex meters are rare, but you can learn more about them at the end of this article.
In addition, you’ll come across the terms duple, triple, and quadruple meters. These refer to the top number in a time signature, which indicates how many beats you get per measure.
Below you’ll find examples of each meter combination.
Simple Meter vs Compound Meter
Simple meter (or simple time) is a time signature where beats divide into twos. For example, 2/4 time is a simple meter because you can divide the two quarter notes into two sets of eighth notes (quavers).
Compound meter (or compound time) is a time signature where beats divide into threes. For example, 6/8 is a compound meter because you can divide each dotted quarter note into three eighth notes.
Examples of Simple Meter
The three examples of simple meters you’ll see most often are simple duple, simple triple, and simple quadruple meter. As a reminder, simple meter (or simple time) is a meter where beats can be divided by two.
Simple Duple Meter
Simple duple meter means that there are two beats in each measure, and each of those beats can be divided by two. The most common examples of simple duple meter are the 2/2, 2/4, and 2/8 time signatures.
Simple Triple Meter
Simple triple meter means that there are three beats in each measure, and each of those beats can be divided by two. The most common examples of simple triple meter are the 3/2, 3/4, and 3/8 time signatures.
Simple Quadruple Meter
Simple quadruple meter means that there are four beats in each measure, and each of those beats can be divided by two. The most common examples of simple quadruple meter are the 4/2, 4/4, and 4/8 time signatures.
Examples of Compound Meter
The three examples of compound meter you’ll see most often are compound duple, compound triple, and compound quadruple meter. As a reminder, compound meter (or compound time) is a meter where beats can be divided by three.
Compound Duple Meter
Compound duple meter means that there are two beats in each measure, and each of those beats can be divided by three.
An easy way to remember this is that every time signature that has a 6 as the top number is compound duple meter. Therefore, the examples of compound duple meter are the 6/2, 6/4, and 6/8 time signatures.
Compound Triple Meter
Compound triple meter means that there are three beats in each measure, and each of those beats can be divided by three.
An easy way to remember this is that every time signature that has a 9 as the top number is compound triple meter. Therefore, the examples of compound duple meter are the 9/2, 9/4, 9/8, and 9/16 time signatures.
Compound Quadruple Meter
Compound triple meter means that there are four beats in each measure, and each of those beats can be divided by three.
An easy way to remember this is that every time signature that has a 12 as the top number is compound quadruple meter. Therefore, the examples of compound duple meter are the 12/2, 12/4, 12/8, and 12/16 time signatures.
Other Time Signatures
Most music in the world is in simple or compound meter. That said, there are some other meters you will come across. Some of the more rare time signatures and combinations of time signatures are: complex meter, mixed meter, and polymeter.
Complex time signatures are also called composite, asymmetrical, or irregular time signatures because they don’t follow the same structure as duple or triple meters. Some examples of complex time signatures include 5/4, 7/8, and 11/4.
While they’re not as common as simple or compound meters, complex time signatures became more popular in music starting in the 19th century.
In mixed meter music, a piece might start in 4/4 time and then change to 3/4 time, then back to 4/4 time, etc. As a result, the accent patterns and pulse can have a “push and pull” or syncopated feeling. This is similar to the hemiola rhythmic effect common in Renaissance, Baroque, and even world music.
Polymeter is when a piece of music has two time signatures that occur simultaneously. For instance, in Joan Osborne’s version of Captain Beefheart’s “Right Hand Man,” the drums play in 2/4 meter while the guitar and vocal lines are in 7/4.
A popular classical guitar example is the Renaissance lute piece “Canarios” by Gaspar Sanz, which occurs in both 3/4 and 6/8 time simultaneously.