Time signatures: the basics


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EZLN libertad
05-13-2007, 11:11 PM
Time Signatures: The Basics

Time signatures help to make music understandable. Without them we would not know how to be sure of the right way to read a piece of music. To quote dictionary.com a time signature is ďa musical notation indicating the number of beats to a measure and kind of note that takes a beat.Ē Iíll be discussing the very basics of what you need to know.

The numbers, and what they mean

The most common type of time signature without a doubt is 4/4. You will find time signatures written in the very first measure of a piece, one number written above the other separated by a line. The top number represents how many beats per measure, while the bottom number represents the amount of time that is given to a note.

For instance, in 4/4:


There are 4 notes per measure, because the top number is 4. Also, a quarter note is one beat of the measure, 4 quarter notes complete the measure. Pretty simple, right?

Another basic example that youíre bound to run into is 3/4


The bottom number is 4, so a quarter note gets a beat. However, now the top number is 3, meaning there are only 3 beats per measure, so there are only 3 quarter notes per measure now.

To help better understand the function of the bottom number, this is in 4/8:


Notice that now to complete a measure, instead of four quarter notes, we now have four eight notes, because an 8 is now the lower number in the time signature. Also, 2 quarter notes now fill a measure, because as we know, quarter notes are equal to 2 eight notes. Thus 2 quarter notes = 4 quarter notes = a measure.

Other somewhat common time signatures:



5/4, we have 5 notes per measure, a quarter note gets a beat, 5 quarter notes per measure. This is fairly common in progressive music, the introduction of the song Yyz by Rush is very good example.

7/4 and 7/8


7/4 This is also commonly used in progressive music. There are 7 notes per measure, and a quarter note gets a beat.

7/8 The same as 7/4 just written with eight notes instead of quarter notes.

For these two time signatures I suggest sitting down and slowly tapping them out, to get a feel for them. I personally see 7/4 divided into a measure of 4/4 and a measure of 3/4, this is one way you can deal with it. These two time signatures, 7/4 and 7/8, will keep you on your feet, because you're naturally waiting for the 8th beat, which never comes.

A good example of 7/4 is Money by Pink Floyd.



12/8 may seem tough at first glance.
12 beats per measure, an eight note gets a beat. Okay. Understandable, but we can break it down. Lets treat each group of 8 eight notes as triplets, and suddenly, it acts as if we were in 4/4 time playing a group of triplets per beat. A good example of this is I Know A Little, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. However, you'll find listening to it that you're not really able to tell its in 12/8.

This time signature is more common in blues, mostly because of a pattern that can be written with it. The [infamous] eighth notes with a swing feeling is used a lot in blues. This is when you have 2 eight notes, however they are not played as straight eight notes. They're played as if you were playing on the first and third note of a triplet, giving it a blues feel. It's easily utilised in 12/8 because if you have a pattern of a quarter note followed by an eight note, its the same feel as a triplet with notes being played on the first and third beat, which is the same as eighth notes with a swing feel.



9/8, I havenít run into this that often, but occasionally it will come up. I treat this as if I were playing 3 groups of triplets per measure. Weíve got 9 beats per measure, eight note gets a beat. Treated as triplets, with a repeating measure it sounds like:
TRI pah let tri pah let tri pah let TRI pa let tri pah let tri pah let

Well I hope this could be of help, any questions feel free to ask me. This was my first attempt at writing a lesson, I saw ug had no lesson on time signatures, and since its a fairly simple topic, I figured why not?


yeah so this is my first try, just a basic theory thing, i realized we didnt have a thing on the basics of time sigs, sorry if theres grammar areas, i didnt have time to check it over, and my moms kickin me off the computer now

05-14-2007, 12:54 AM
nice graphics. good writing

05-14-2007, 05:15 AM
Money is in 7/4 not 5/4. A good example for 5/4 would be Take 5 by Brubeck. I think you should have mentioned 6/8 instead of 5/4 as its far more common and more useful.

EZLN libertad
05-14-2007, 08:17 AM
ah, got it sinan, sorry, yeah if anyone can think of any other sigs, or any examples for ones that dont have it let me know, ill change it when i get back tonight

05-14-2007, 04:53 PM
I'd also mention !2/8 being used in slow blues a lot, it gives that distinctive shuffle feel. With the quarter note, eighth note pattern (crochet, quaver for British people)

EZLN libertad
05-14-2007, 05:31 PM
gotchya, edited and revised, lemme know what you all think

05-15-2007, 02:29 AM
Nice job, I'm favoriting this.


05-16-2007, 05:02 AM
Another would be adding things in 2/2. Normally used in quick bebop and swing numbers.

05-16-2007, 05:52 PM
4/4, 2/2, 2/4, 4/2, 3/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 are the most common of time signatures, if you needed a reference, although there's probably more I can't remember right now.

Unless you're a big Tool fan.

05-17-2007, 06:02 PM
Nice writing and graphics.

EZLN libertad
05-25-2007, 05:31 PM
4/4, 2/2, 2/4, 4/2, 3/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 are the most common of time signatures, if you needed a reference, although there's probably more I can't remember right now.

Unless you're a big Tool fan.

which i actually am, i was very tempted to throw in things like, 13/8 and whatnot...

06-22-2007, 07:37 AM
This is needed, add in what others are saying and let it be featured!

06-22-2007, 03:55 PM
Another would be adding things in 2/2. Normally used in quick bebop and swing numbers.
And by the way, if you add 2/2, you should write that it's symbolized with the "C" mark. People often misuse that for a 4/4 signature.

And you can mention that the 7/8, 11/8, and 9/8 are very much used in Eastern and southern European music, and musicians like Vasil Hadzimanov and Vlatko Stefanovski. The other has almost every song in one of the keys mentioned.

A great article overall!

06-23-2007, 01:22 PM
Well done!

This should definately be added on the website. Keep up the good work!

06-23-2007, 03:53 PM
And by the way, if you add 2/2, you should write that it's symbolized with the "C" mark. People often misuse that for a 4/4 signature.

'C' is used to notate 4/4, common time. What you're thinking of is cut-common, or 2/2 which is notated as Ę.

06-25-2007, 08:59 AM
it might be nice to crop the graphics

07-26-2007, 03:01 PM
Tool's Lateralus is in 9/8 8/8 & 7/8.

07-26-2007, 03:04 PM
7/4 =/= 7/8

you should fix that

07-26-2007, 03:29 PM
Why not submit it as a lesson? Nothing New.

EDIT My bad. It'd goin to be a lesson right? Sorry.

07-26-2007, 11:55 PM
Does anyone know the time signature for the main lick of arpeggios from hell?


08-12-2007, 11:17 AM
Common time (4/4) and cut common time (2/2) are often used for the fact that at any given tempo, cut common time is played twice as fast as common time. This is by virtue of the fact that tempo is defined by beats per minute and 4/4 & 2/2 time are the same size in notation, but 2/2 (cut common) has half the number of beats.

I'd also like to add that often in x/8 times, eg. 7/8 or 9/8, the strong beats in the bar can be played in very odd positions for a different feel. Such as a 7/8 time, with the strong beats on the 1, 3, and 5 - which can be thought of as two pairs and then one triplet, but it may also be played with a pair, then a triplet then another pair, which is the strong beats on 1, 3 and 6.

In fact, the "strong" beats in the bar can be distributed any way you like and it doesn't just apply to 8 time signatures, bars of 5/4 for example are usually given strong beats on 1 and 4, i.e. a triplet then a pair, but this can be reversed as well. The possibilities are literally endless, and often the distinction between two times can be completely transparent in the musical notation and only evident in the feel of the playing. A song in 3/4 time and a song in 6/8 time will have the same value of notes in each bar, the only difference being in where the strong beats are played. So if you are looking to settle an argument over whether a song is in 6/4 or 12/8 - you might require an impartial third party to resolve it. ;)

08-24-2007, 05:25 AM
Can anybody explain compound time signatures?

09-04-2007, 01:25 PM
A basic answer can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_%28music%29

Simply stated, compound time signatures are those in which each beat can be divided into 3 equal parts, and simple time the beat is divided into 2 equal parts. A good example would be 12/8 - if the beat were 6 pairs of quavers it would be simple time and if it were divided into 4 lots of 3 quavers, it would be compound time. If it were some mix of both it could be referred to as irregular or uneven time, but essentially it would remain as some parts of simple and some parts of compound time in each bar.

Another example would be in a 4/4 time, a triplet gives a compound "feel" to a simple time and conversely a duplet would give a simple time feel in a compound time signature.

In music, the rhythm always deals in factors of two, i.e. half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes etc - hence simple time is grouped by twos, and compound time is "compounding" an extra fraction to the beat, the length of the beats do not correspond to regular notation.

09-16-2007, 04:07 PM
some excellent example's of 5/4 time would be "whipping post", by the allman brothers,as well as "thick as a brick" by jethro tull.
a good 7/4 is "sealion" also by jethro tull.

i think there should be some examples used of changing time signatures. one good song for this is "driven" by rush, which alternates between 7/4 and 6/4 in the main riff.

all in all great article.

09-16-2007, 11:50 PM
You definitly need to add 6/4 and 6/8

You could also state that 3/4 is known as 'waltz time' because you dance a waltz to songs in 3/4

Another suggestion, state some bands that often use different time sigs.
ex. Dream Theater, Yes, Jethro Tull, Rush, Marillion, The Flower Kings (prog rock in general)

10-08-2007, 07:54 AM
Does anyone know the time signature for the main lick of arpeggios from hell?


It's a quite exotic time signature,
I believe it's called 4/4


anyways props to you for attempting it

10-08-2007, 11:31 PM
I run into 6/8 or 3/4 more often than anything else (4/4 excepted), due to being a large Opeth fan. Also, 12/8 or 6/4, 5/4, etc.

Although I HAVE ran into such oddities as 13/8, 23/16, 28/16, 25/16... many other variations of n/16 (both sub-dividable and not) all of which used by Meshuggah.

Nice lesson though.

04-20-2009, 06:54 AM
I honestly don't think the meshuggah drummer can count past 5, I reckon he just plays 5 or less multiples of rhythms with 5 or less divisions... lol j/k the whole band is very talented - I just can't find any sense to the song tempos etc, madness.