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I have searched many places, but the bottom number of the time signature really confuses me, and not one person has successfully made my brain click on understanding it.

Ok, let's say it was 4/4. Top number = 4 beats per measure. Simple. But the bottom number I do not understand what people mean by "which note gets the beat."

Does it mean that you can only have 4 quarter notes in that measure, or only 1 whole note, or only 2 half notes, etc?

And oh, should I worry about other time signatures like 3/4? I'm just focusing on guitar, and I still haven't seen a song with something other than 4/4.

Thank you.
I'm writing a whole series on time, so I can give you a really in depth explanation then. For now the bottom number confuses you right?
The bottom number of a time signature is referenced to a semibreve (whole note) which has a value of 1. A value of 4 simply means, you should count the semibreve cut into 4 parts. While the top number is how many of these you should count in each measure. So 3/4 is just 3 of the semibreve cut into 4 parts each bar. It's a bit difficult to explain without a diagram or actually showing you in person. Let me know if you have no idea what I'm on about.
Last edited by GoldenGuitar at Jun 12, 2015,
Quote by GoldenGuitar
I'm writing a whole series on time, so I can give you a really indepth explanation then. For now the bottom number confuses you right?
The bottom number of a time signature is referenced to semibreve (whole note) which has a value of 1. A value of 4 simply means, you should count the semibreve cut into 4 parts. While the top number is how many of these you should count in each measure. So 3/4 is just 3 of the semibreve cut into 4 parts each bar. It's a bit difficult to explain with a diagram or actually showing you in person. Let me know if you have no idea what I'm on about.

I'm sorry but I have no idea what you're talking about take a look at what I wrote in my initial post and let me know if that's basically what the bottom number is.
No, that's not what the bottom number is.
In 4/4 the top number doesn't really mean 4 beats, it means 4 of the bottom number. The bottom number refers to how you are going to count. But you can't have numbers coming out of thin air, that's why it needs to refer back to a constant. In time signatures it is the whole note.
I'm not an expert, but I'll try to give an explanation. If I make any mistake, please pro people of the community feel free to correct me.

I think you can see it this way: the top number is the number of units in a measure, the bottom number is the "quality" of the unit.

For example if you are in a 4/4, your basic unit is a quarter note, and you have four of them in a measure.
So it looks like this:

If you were in a 3/4, consequently, you would have three quarter notes.
Graphically:

So the upper number simply changes the amount of units in a measure.

If it's the lower number to change, if means that your beat is represented by a note whith... basically a different value and therefore graphical representation.
Let's take 8/8 as an example.
It's, basically, the same as a 4/4(provided that you double the tempo when counting it in eights and not in quarters), but your basic unit is an eight note.
So, there are 8 beats in a measure, each representing 1/8.

I've personally never seen a 8/8, BUT the cool thing is that you can use an x/8 to make music in 3.5/4; which would be impossible with an x/4 time signature. So you can use 7/8 instead.
It allows, for example, to "shift" the accent at every measure (that's what happened in most of the 7/8, 5/8, 9/8 and similar time signatures that I encountered).

Graphically, this is an example:

Quote by Granata
Does it mean that you can only have 4 quarter notes in that measure, or only 1 whole note, or only 2 half notes, etc?

Yes, or any other multiple/divisor of the quarter note (and combination of them, as long as the total value is a whole note- or more correctly, four quarter notes).
Last edited by Michele_R at Jun 12, 2015,
It's probably time to retire the words "semibreve", "breve", "crotchet" and "quaver" as they seem to add to the confusion. Here's my attempt at explaining time signature:

You'll have noticed that most Western music consists of "beats" in a repeated pattern of emphasis. For example, "ONE two three four, ONE two three four ..."

A time signature gives you information about the beat pattern of a piece of music.

The top number tells you how many beats before the pattern repeats. In the example above this is 4. This repetition is indicated by bar lines in the music notation.

The bottom number tells you what length of note makes up each beat. This is more difficult to understand because it derives from arbitrary conventions (which I will try to explain below). It's mainly there to help with reading the music notation.

Let's say there's a length of note called a "whole note". It doesn't have a fixed, measurable time unless you specify a "tempo" for the music. It's just a useful relative reference point.

This whole note can be divided into "half notes", "quarter notes", "eighth notes", "sixteenth notes", etc. which last fractionally as long. For example, sixteen sixteenth notes last as long as one whole note.

The vast majority of music uses a quarter note as its beat unit. In these pieces the bottom number of the time signature is 4.

So if a piece of music has 4/4 as its time signature you know that its pulse pattern repeats every four beats, and you know that each beat is a quarter of our arbitrary whole note.

If a piece has 3/4 its pulse repeats every three beats so it will likely have waltz feel at slow tempi.

4/4 and 3/4 account for a very high percentage of Western music, but there are many other possibilities. Some, like 7/8, 5/4 etc. are understandable from the explanation above, although you have to understand the conventions of which beats are emphasised.

Other time signatures, such as 2/2, would seem to be unnecessary. Surely you could re-write 2/2 music into 4/4, so what's the point of it? Same with 6/8 and 3/4. The answer is partly dependent upon the 'busyness' of the music in terms of chord changes in the pulse pattern. It's also partly to do with conventions of beat emphasis. The answer is not purely mathematical or self-contained within the time signature itself. In some cases these time signatures are used just to keep the notation neat or the tempo sensible. It would be wise to look up examples and try to understand why the composer made the particular choice of time signature.
Last edited by Jehannum at Jun 12, 2015,
6/8 and 3/4 are NOT the same thing.

Time signatures are NOT fractions.

Golden's post is as right as humanly possible.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
I would like to add that some of you are confusing meter with time signatures. Time signatures are simply a way of dividing up chunks of time (since we can't count in seconds). So we know WHEN to play

Which is why as Jet saids:

Quote by Jet Penguin
6/8 and 3/4 are NOT the same thing.

What the musician counts is not always what the audience will feel.
Last edited by GoldenGuitar at Jun 12, 2015,
^Yes. Here's the simplest explanation possible:

The TOP number is how many 'notes' go into one bar of music.

The BOTTOM number is what kind of notes 'notes' refers to.

7/8 = 7 eighth notes per bar.

27/16 = 27 16th notes per bar.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Since we are talking about how meter affects the way we play, I have a question:
at what extent do you think that time signature can be arbitrary?

As for 6/8 and 3/4, the difference is that since 6/8 is a compound meter of 2/4, it's a duple meter; while 3/4 is triple.
Consequently, 6/8 has two "accents" (I don't know if this is the right word in english), 3/4 has three, right?

But than, can you say that writing in 6/8 (using eights) or 2/4 (using triplets) is the same -provided that the tempo is set in a way that the duration of an eight note in the first case is the same as a triplet in the second- and up to the composer's personal preference?
I mean, probably using 6/8 is better than compose a piece in 2/4 using only triplets, BUT would using 2/4 be considered wrong?

Again, take for example Learning to live intro melody:

I've seen it counted as 15/8...but why not 6/8 and 9/8 (as I'd have written it if I composed the melody or transcribed it)?
^It all has to do with the melody and the phrasing.

The melody is God.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Quote by Michele_R

But than, can you say that writing in 6/8 (using eights) or 2/4 (using triplets) is the same -provided that the tempo is set in a way that the duration of an eight note in the first case is the same as a triplet in the second- and up to the composer's personal preference?
I mean, probably using 6/8 is better than compose a piece in 2/4 using only triplets, BUT would using 2/4 be considered wrong?

Again, take for example Learning to live intro melody:

I've seen it counted as 15/8...but why not 6/8 and 9/8 (as I'd have written it if I composed the melody or transcribed it)?

Notation is simply a way of putting sound on paper. There is always more than one way to put down the idea. In the 2/4 and 6/8 case, it would sound the same to the listener so the only consideration the composer needs to make is for the potential performers. I would not consider it wrong though.
As for the 15/8 example in the Dream Theatre piece, I can't actually listen to it as I'm on my phone. But as humans, we group series of sounds in groups of 2's and 3's so you could write out how you want, even in a different subdivision and different tempo if you wanted. But always try to think of the simplest way of getting an idea down.
Last edited by GoldenGuitar at Jun 12, 2015,
Quote by Jet Penguin
^Yes. Here's the simplest explanation possible:

The TOP number is how many 'notes' go into one bar of music.

The BOTTOM number is what kind of notes 'notes' refers to.

7/8 = 7 eighth notes per bar.

27/16 = 27 16th notes per bar.

OK! Out of every post in this thread, this one I think made my brain click, so let me explain how I see it and tell me if it's correct.

Ok, so 4/4 for example. There's four beats per measure, and in that measure there will only be whole notes, since the bottom number is 4 and whole notes get 4 beats.

If it were 3/8, it would be 3 beats per measure, but you'd only have eight notes in that measure to compose the 3 beats.

Is that correct? Wait, that it seems only applies to the first measure. Songs don't stay consistent with beats and notes. So 4/4 for example, it might still have 4 beats throughout the whole song, but you'll get half notes, eight notes, etc, and not all whole notes. So I guess I'm still lost?

I'm sorry, I'm mentally incapable of understanding music at times without someone being right next to me to give me live examples.

These are all bars in 4/4. You can have one bar of just a whole note, or two half notes, or four quarter notes, or eight 8th notes or 16 16th notes. Two quarter notes take the same space as one half note (2/4 = 1/2). Two 8ths take the same space as one quarter note (2/8 = 1/4). Four 16ths take the same space as one quarter (4/16 = 1/4).

4/4 just means there are four quarter notes in one bar, or anything that takes the same space. The rhythm doesn't matter, but if you know about fractions, you can count if the rhythm will fit in 4/4. Though even if a rhythm fits in 4/4, it doesn't mean it sounds like 4/4. Where the beat is is the most important thing, and that's something you just have to feel.

What you need to know is how to count. If you have a rhythm, first of all, can you feel the beat? Can you tap your foot to the beat? Now listen. How many beats do you feel there are in a bar? I don't know how to explain it, but you just need to count the beats and hear if it's in 4/4 or 3/4 or whatever.

Just listen to a couple of songs and try to figure out if they are in 4/4 or 3/4 or whatever.

Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
Quote by MaggaraMarine

These are all bars in 4/4. You can have one bar of just a whole note, or two half notes, or four quarter notes, or eight 8th notes or 16 16th notes. Two quarter notes take the same space as one half note (2/4 = 1/2). Two 8ths take the same space as one quarter note (2/8 = 1/4). Four 16ths take the same space as one quarter (4/16 = 1/4).

4/4 just means there are four quarter notes in one bar, or anything that takes the same space. The rhythm doesn't matter, but if you know about fractions, you can count if the rhythm will fit in 4/4. Though even if a rhythm fits in 4/4, it doesn't mean it sounds like 4/4. Where the beat is is the most important thing, and that's something you just have to feel.

What you need to know is how to count. If you have a rhythm, first of all, can you feel the beat? Can you tap your foot to the beat? Now listen. How many beats do you feel there are in a bar? I don't know how to explain it, but you just need to count the beats and hear if it's in 4/4 or 3/4 or whatever.

Just listen to a couple of songs and try to figure out if they are in 4/4 or 3/4 or whatever.

Ok so the top number tells me there are 4 beats in each measure, the bottom tells me that there can be whatever notes in a measure, but they can't exceed four beats or else it throws the song off. So I can have a whole note in one bar, and in another measure I can have different notes, but I can't exceed four beats, so I can have a half note and two quarter notes for example, but no more. Correct? Please tell me that's correct and that I understand it lol.

Ok, let's see; the van halen song sounds like it's in 4/4. Jimmi's song sounds like it's at 3/4. Correct? Close?

EDIT: checked the music sheet for the two songs and saw that I was correct I only had to listen to around 8 seconds of the song to get the beat down as well. Proud of myself for that. I may not be able to write music, but I can definitely understand music's rhythm.
Last edited by Granata at Jun 13, 2015,
^ Yes.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
Quote by MaggaraMarine
^ Yes.

So the bottom number just says that I can use whatever notes, but it can't exceed four beats? What if it was 3/4 then?
^ Then it's three beats per bar. I mean, you just figured out a song is in 3/4. How did you figure it out? By counting "one, two, three, one, two, three", right?

The bottom number tells what note values the beats are, the top number tells how many beats there are in a bar.

In 4/4 the beat is quarter notes (look at the bottom number), and there are 4 bears in a bar (look at the top number). In 3/4 the beat is quarter notes (look at the bottom number), and there are 3 beats in a bar (look at the top number).

That's the simplest explanation.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
Last edited by MaggaraMarine at Jun 13, 2015,
Quote by Granata
So the bottom number just says that I can use whatever notes, but it can't exceed four beats? What if it was 3/4 then?

No.
The bottom number tells you the kind of notes the top number refers to.
The top number tells you both the number of beats AND the amount of notes that can't be exceeded (which is the same, really).

3/4= 3 quarter notes in a bar.
You will have three beats, each having the duration of a quarter note.
You can still use whatever notes, but can't exceed three beats (in the case of 3/4).
For 4/4 the limit would be four beats, for 5/4 it would be five.

If it were 3/8, it would mean that the measure can contain notes for a total value of 3 eight notes.

Maybe you should try to experiment a bit on a software like guitar pro or musescore in some different time signatures and try to write some rhythm patterns to aquire a better understanding.
Last edited by Michele_R at Jun 13, 2015,
 - too slow that guy beat me to it.. [/edit]

No the bottom number tells you what kind of notes you are counting.

If it's four then you are counting however many quarter notes per bar.

The top number tells you how many of those notes are in each bar.

So if it is 4/4 then it is four quarter notes per bar.
if it is 3/4 then it is three quarter notes per bar.
if it is 5/4 then there are five quarter notes per bar.
if it were 5976824/4 then there would be five million nine hundred seventy six thousand eight hundred twenty four quarter notes per bar (which will never happen but I'm making a point).

The top number tells you how many notes are grouped in a bar. The bottom tells you what value those notes are that you're counting.

So 4/4 will have the equivalent of four quarter notes per bar whether it is one whole note two half notes four quarter notes or whatever.

3/4 time will have the equivalent of three quarter notes per bar whether it is one half note plus one quarter note, three quarter notes, a dotted half note, one quarter note plus four eighth notes etc. The total number of notes in each bar is the equivalent of three quarter notes.
Si
^That.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Quote by 20Tigers
 - too slow that guy beat me to it.. [/edit]

No the bottom number tells you what kind of notes you are counting.

If it's four then you are counting however many quarter notes per bar.

The top number tells you how many of those notes are in each bar.

So if it is 4/4 then it is four quarter notes per bar.
if it is 3/4 then it is three quarter notes per bar.
if it is 5/4 then there are five quarter notes per bar.
if it were 5976824/4 then there would be five million nine hundred seventy six thousand eight hundred twenty four quarter notes per bar (which will never happen but I'm making a point).

The top number tells you how many notes are grouped in a bar. The bottom tells you what value those notes are that you're counting.

So 4/4 will have the equivalent of four quarter notes per bar whether it is one whole note two half notes four quarter notes or whatever.

3/4 time will have the equivalent of three quarter notes per bar whether it is one half note plus one quarter note, three quarter notes, a dotted half note, one quarter note plus four eighth notes etc. The total number of notes in each bar is the equivalent of three quarter notes.

Ok, I'm understanding a little, but it still seems like the number on the bottom doesn't mean much the way you explained it.

Could you give me an example of 3/4, 4/4, and let's say 4/8? As in like a beat example or a 1, 2, 3, 4 example. Maybe that will help me understand it.
It's LITERALLY the kind of notes in a bar.

4/8 means that a duration equivalent to four EIGHTH notes makes up one bar.

/4 = quarter

/8 = eighth notes

/16 = 16th notes

etc.

You count to the number in the top bar.

4/4 and 4/8 both involve you counting to four, but what note duration gets one count is different. 3/4 involves you counting to 3.

You're overthinking it.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
I don't know what music theory is.

Quote by Jet Penguin
It's LITERALLY the kind of notes in a bar.

4/8 means that a duration equivalent to four EIGHTH notes makes up one bar.

/4 = quarter

/8 = eighth notes

/16 = 16th notes

etc.

You count to the number in the top bar.

4/4 and 4/8 both involve you counting to four, but what note duration gets one count is different. 3/4 involves you counting to 3.

You're overthinking it.

Yeah but like you said, 4/4 right? So four quarter notes, but in other measures it's not always going to be quarter notes.

And for that 4/4 and 4/8, can you give me an example of how the beat would go?
Same thing with the beats labelled.

I don't know what music theory is.

tbh most the time signatures are a bit rubbish and standard. For me, it's all about that 4/5
will someone carry me across ten thousand miles under the silence
Lol, I love 4/5 when juxtaposed with 4/4. But I find it easier to just metric modulate :P.
What JRF said. You're over thinking it.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Quote by jazz_rock_feel
Same thing with the beats labelled.

Ok that image helped a lot, but what I'm trying to get at is that the bottom number doesn't seem like it's applied in any of that and thatnits irrelevant. The top number only seems to me that is the only one that matters, really. All I see is the top number telling me the number of beats in each measure, but the bottom number seems useless.

Can't believe after all these explanations I still can't figure it out I was I was joking, too, but I'm not.

A while back there was this site that explained music theory so dman good. You'd click on each thing and it would explain would it does, show the beat's sound through the speakers, and give examples. Wish I still had the link.
Think about this, if I changed the bottom number to a 6 what would it mean? So 4/6?
Can you see the difference between 4/4 and 4/8?
I don't know what music theory is.

The bottom number is telling you what kind of note a beat is EQUAL to.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Ok, read all your comments and I still do not understand. Ok, let's try this; I found the website I was talking about.

http://www.musictheory.net/lessons/12

See how they explained? That makes complete sense, but only for those examples. I get it; 4/4 means there are 4 quarter notes, 3/4 means there are three quarter notes, 10/16 means there are 10 sixteenth notes. That makes perfect sense, but the website shows that when the notes change, so does the time signature in each measure. So it shows 4/4, for example, and it shows four quarter notes, but when the measure starts showing 3 quarter notes, the time signature will change for that measure, where as the image you guys provided me with a couple posts above this one doesn't change the time signature from the beginning, even though you go from quarter notes to eight notes. Get why I'm confused? Hope that made sense.
Because it doesn't have to be LITERALLY 4 quarter notes to be a bar of 4/4.

All of the "things" in the bar have to be EQUAL IN DURATION to 4 quarter notes.

You can have 8 eighth notes in a bar of 4/4 because 8 eighth notes and 4 quarter notes are the same thing.

As explained many times above.

We cannot make this any easier.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Quote by Jet Penguin
Because it doesn't have to be LITERALLY 4 quarter notes to be a bar of 4/4.

All of the "things" in the bar have to be EQUAL IN DURATION to 4 quarter notes.

You can have 8 eighth notes in a bar of 4/4 because 8 eighth notes and 4 quarter notes are the same thing.

As explained many times above.

We cannot make this any easier.

Exactly my point. Above you guys said that the bottom number tells you what note it is, but why would that matter if the whole staff isn't composed of that note only? Aren't we basically just looking at the top number? 4 beats per measure, right? Why would I need the bottom number then if I know that I can throw in as many notes as I want as long as they all end up being four beats?
Because without the bottom number you cannot tell how large the bar is. And as I said in the first post, it tells you how to count.
Last edited by GoldenGuitar at Jun 13, 2015,
Quote by GoldenGuitar
Because without the bottom number you cannot tell how large the bar is. And as I said in the first post, it tells you how to count.

I think I'm just going to let it go. I have no idea how the bottom number works. You guys explained the best you can, and thank you for that, but I can't figure it out. Might as well just let it go and hopefully I'll stumble across something that makes my brain click one day.
WAIT! Ok I think my brain clicked.