Time Signatures

author: ironwolg date: 04/28/2010 category: the basics
rating: 9 / votes: 22 
For those of you who don't know, a time signature is represented by a fraction. You've probably looked at some sheet music and saw the fraction 4/4 at the beginning of the peice. That is a time signature.
4   < the numerator shows how many beats are in the measure
-
4   < the denominator shows what type of note gets the beat
The numerator is pretty easy to understand, but the denominator might get a little confusing. When I say "what type of note gets the beat," I'm talking about note values such as quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and so on. A quarter note will be represented by a 4, a half note will be represented by a 2, a whole note by a 1, an eighth note by an 8, a sixteenth note by a 16, and they usually won't go up any higher than that. So, that being said, you should be able to understand what is meant by these time signatures.
4     4     4     4     4     
-     -     -     -     -
1     2     4     8     16
In the time signature 4/1 you will have four whole notes in a measure. In the time signature 4/2 you will have four half notes in a measure. In the time signature 4/4 you will have four quarter notes in a measure. In the time signature 4/8 you will have four eighth notes in a measure. In the time signature 4/16 you will have four sixteenth notes in a measure. Changing the numerator will change the number of whole, half, quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes that can appear in the measure. Just to clear up a bit of confusion that I might have just caused, you can use notes other than the ones specified by the time signatures. For example, in a measure of 4/4, you don't have to stick to just quarter notes, you can use eighth notes or half notes or quarter notes. This is where you will have to do a little math. If you wanted to use eighth notes, you can use 8 in a measure of 4/4 because eighth notes are half the value of a quarter note. This can all get very confusing, so here is a chart to help explain. 1 Whole note = 2 Half notes = 4 Quarter notes = 8 eighth notes = 16 sixteenth notes Maybe it's not a chart, but it is a short tool to help you learn note values. I would go further into detail with it, but this is a lesson on time signatures, not note values. So, now that you have a basic understanding of time signatures, it's time to learn how to count them. To count a measure of 4/4, you can count like this: 1, 2, 3, 4. Simple. That is what most of today's(and a lot of yesterday's) music sounds like. Listen to any pop song on the radio and you can feel the beat. You can count along with it, 1,2,3,4. Remember! When you count the time signatures like this, you will accent the 1. Let's move on to something a little more unusual: 5/4. This is a very simple time signature but can be hard to play at first. You would normally count 5/4 like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. That is the normal way to count it, however, you can count it like this: 1, 2, 1, 2, 3. As long as there are 5 counts of quarter notes in it, you will be fine. Now we can try a more simple and more "normal" time signature. 3/4 is very popular in waltz music. It is counted: 1, 2, 3. Very simple. Here's one of my favorite time signatures of all, 7/8. In this time signature, you will be counting eighth notes. There will be seven eighth notes in each measure(or the equivilant of 7 eighth notes). There are several ways to count this so here are a few:
1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3

1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2

1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1
As you can see, when you get to the larger numerators there are several ways to count the time signatures. Keep in mind that just because you're playing in 7/8 that does not mean that 7/8 will always be faster than 7/4, the speed will always be dictated by the tempo. Time signatures are taught more to percussionists than to guitarists but they can be just as useful to us. Like most music theory, you must physically practice this on your instrument. So the big question is, "How do I go about practicing time signatures?" It's very simple, you will only use one chord or note, we'll just say you can us the standard E5 power chord
--------
--------
--------
--------
--2-----
--0-----
and play the notes in the time signature. Count 1, 2, 3, 4 and play the E5 each time you count, making sure to accent the 1. Make sure that you're consistant with the notes as well, you don't want to play the 1 and hold it longer than the 2, 3, and 4. Now I challenge you to take the time signatures 6/8, 9/8, and 15/16 and analyze them and come up with your own favorite ways to count them. Post how you would count each time signature as a comment and I will let you know how you did. Time signatures can be very confusing and intimidating to begin with but hopefully I've managed to explain it in a way that is simple and understandable. This may very well be my worst lesson but I hope it helps some of you who want to play music that sounds original and doesn't follow along with what most pop artists are doing. Good luck and don't forget to post your way of counting those time signatures!
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