Time Signatures

The world has become accustomed to only hearing 4/4 or 3/4 and maybe 6/8 time. Why only stick to those? There are many many more time signatures that open up many many more rhythmic possibilities!

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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!

31 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Morik
    Awesome lesson. I love odd time signatures, they make music less boring.
    loganØATH
    LEFTYCUSTOMSHOP wrote: THE TOP NUMBER DOESNT MATTER AS MUCH AS THE BOTTOM ONE. 6, 9, AND 15 OVER 8 ARE COMPOUND METERS. U COUNT THEM AS YOU WOULD COUNT THEIR SIMPLE METERS 6/8 IS USUALLY COUNTED 123123, 9/8 123123123.
    You need a new keyboard.
    Senor Kristian
    Can't tell you how long I searched through UG last week for a lesson like this! And just browsing through today, BAM! There it was. Just what I was looking for. Much appreciated
    David Blackbird
    Ackj wrote: evening_crow wrote: Good lesson but i think an explanation for using different time signatures with different denominators would be nice. For example: using 4/8 instead of common time. I've never understood this concept. Maybe it goes more along with classical training or theory, but 4/4, 4/8, 4/16, 8/4, I all play the same way. Same goes for 2/4, I just play two bars of 2 as if they were one bar of 4/4. I've been playing for years and never understood this concept. Always chalked it up to music theory snobs trying to prove superiority.
    You're doing it right. 4/4, 4/8, and 4/16 would sound identical. 8/4 and 2/4 would sound almost the same, and most people wouldn't know. The denominator does not affect the sound, only the numerator does. The denominator only affects how the notes appear on printed sheet music. The reason for the confusion about time signatures is mostly due to beginning music teachers telling their students that the quarter note always gets the beat, which is not true. The denominator is what gets the beat ( with the exception of compound meter, which is a different discussion ), and only affects the appearance of the notes, not the sound. Assuming a tempo of 120 b/m, 4/4 and 4/8 would sound the same, because in 4/4, you're playing 120 quarter notes per minute, and in 4/8, you're playing 120 eighth notes per minute. They would sound the same. As far as 8/4 and 2/4 go, 8/4 would sound like two measures of 4/4, with the first beat of the first measure accented more than the first beat of the second measure ( beat 5 ), and two measures of 2/4 would sound like one measure of 4/4, only with a stronger accent on beat 3.
    amaloney2013
    I am a studying Opera Singer and in college. I was just web browsing when a came on this site. And this is one of the most helpful things. I've never seen time signatures so well broken down and analyzed! Could have really used this a while back! Thank you so much!
    mr.ist12
    Really nice lesson man.... All this is new to me. Thanks for clearing it up.
    ironwolg
    RoseofPain13 wrote: good, but you should've had some musical examples. also you didn't touch on how 9/8 could be felt as 4+5 or 5+4, which is important
    i didn't touch on 9/8 because that's what i'm leaving to all of you. the best way to learn is through experience. i gave everyone the tools they need to figure out how to count any time signature.
    RoseofPain13
    good, but you should've had some musical examples. also you didn't touch on how 9/8 could be felt as 4+5 or 5+4, which is important
    ironwolg
    X]muzik on high wrote: After four years of not completely understanding time signatures.... I do now! I love you! haha just kidding, but this was a great lesson, I understood every bit of it. I'm working experimenting with all of the above time signatures. Thanks!
    haha thanks, but this only covers the basics, there are much more advanced things that i don't even know about yet, hopefully by the end of the spring semester next year, i'll know all about them and post even more advanced lessons
    X]muzik on high
    After four years of not completely understanding time signatures.... I do now! I love you! haha just kidding, but this was a great lesson, I understood every bit of it. I'm working experimenting with all of the above time signatures. Thanks!
    espforme
    very good write up - im so sick of hearing 4/4 and it has become natural almost for everyone - and almost impossible to break out of when first learning. Whoever mentioned TOOL nailed it - Tool actually all of the members challenge themselves mathematically with this on purpose - I love it. Once you understand them then get the feel for it - it is a natural thing - you will just feel the time and go with it. If you suck at math thats where the misunderstanding comes from. If you have a good drummer (I was lucky) that understands this and shows you on drums I think it is easier. My old drummer played a bunch of beats in deiff. times on drums and it really helped - Either way 4/4 is easier for a regular person listening to music to feel and so 4/4 is here to stay - every once in a while a great band will challenge that and sound very good (TOOL). Great write up. That said if you really want to delve into time I would suggest getting a good drum machine to practice with - I have the BOSS dr-880 and swear by it for practicing - even if you get sick of the beats on it - you can kill the sound and just count the metronome off of it.
    Blas3
    This lesson is a good explanation, I've just figured out a few things now... gonna be useful thx mate
    Ackj
    David Blackbird wrote:You're doing it right. 4/4, 4/8, and 4/16 would sound identical. 8/4 and 2/4 would sound almost the same, and most people wouldn't know. The denominator does not affect the sound, only the numerator does. The denominator only affects how the notes appear on printed sheet music. The reason for the confusion about time signatures is mostly due to beginning music teachers telling their students that the quarter note always gets the beat, which is not true. The denominator is what gets the beat ( with the exception of compound meter, which is a different discussion ), and only affects the appearance of the notes, not the sound. Assuming a tempo of 120 b/m, 4/4 and 4/8 would sound the same, because in 4/4, you're playing 120 quarter notes per minute, and in 4/8, you're playing 120 eighth notes per minute. They would sound the same. As far as 8/4 and 2/4 go, 8/4 would sound like two measures of 4/4, with the first beat of the first measure accented more than the first beat of the second measure ( beat 5 ), and two measures of 2/4 would sound like one measure of 4/4, only with a stronger accent on beat 3.
    Awesome, thanks a lot.
    David Blackbird
    evening_crow wrote: Good lesson but i think an explanation for using different time signatures with different denominators would be nice. For example: using 4/8 instead of common time.
    He kind of did:
    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.
    4/4 and 4/8 would sound the same, they would just look different on paper.
    Ackj
    evening_crow wrote: Good lesson but i think an explanation for using different time signatures with different denominators would be nice. For example: using 4/8 instead of common time.
    I've never understood this concept. Maybe it goes more along with classical training or theory, but 4/4, 4/8, 4/16, 8/4, I all play the same way. Same goes for 2/4, I just play two bars of 2 as if they were one bar of 4/4. I've been playing for years and never understood this concept. Always chalked it up to music theory snobs trying to prove superiority.
    evening_crow
    Good lesson but i think an explanation for using different time signatures with different denominators would be nice. For example: using 4/8 instead of common time.
    ironwolg
    18th_Angel wrote: You should take about simple time vs compound time and irrational time. 5/4 is not simple time, which could be easily deduced from your wording. There's a lot more to learn about meters than what is here (and it can be learned in a short time, it's not difficult).
    this lesson was more about breaking away from 4/4 than that kind of stuff. i just wanted to show people how they could use different time signatures to spice up their music
    ironwolg
    NemX162 wrote: ^Why bother use obscure names for notes if you're just going to use the common name right after? Just wondering. I thought it was a great lesson, although I think we could benefit with more ways to practice playing in the, than just counting them.
    what obscure name did i use?
    18th_Angel
    You should take about simple time vs compound time and irrational time. 5/4 is not simple time, which could be easily deduced from your wording. There's a lot more to learn about meters than what is here (and it can be learned in a short time, it's not difficult).
    NemX162
    ^Why bother use obscure names for notes if you're just going to use the common name right after? Just wondering. I thought it was a great lesson, although I think we could benefit with more ways to practice playing in the, than just counting them.
    PurpleBear102
    Pretty good for someone who want to read a few guitar sheetmusic pieces or so, but if their gonna write music their gonna need to learn that all time signatures have 2 3 or 4 beats per and depending on the bottom number the note of the beat differs. e.g compound duple time: 6/4- 2 dotted minims(halfnotes) 6/8- 2 dotted crochets(quarternote) and 6/16- 2 dotted quavers(eigthnotes)
    alles7
    LEFTYCUSTOMSHOP wrote: THE TOP NUMBER DOESNT MATTER AS MUCH AS THE BOTTOM ONE. 6, 9, AND 15 OVER 8 ARE COMPOUND METERS. U COUNT THEM AS YOU WOULD COUNT THEIR SIMPLE METERS 6/8 IS USUALLY COUNTED 123123, 9/8 123123123.
    read the lesson before you comment... good lesson by the way.
    Count Orlok
    Time signatures are fun. And actually, it's easier to count 7/8 as so, 123, 12, 12. Basically a triplet feel for the first three notes and then the last four as simple eighth notes.
    shadowmaster036
    I've never looked into time signatures much. But I'm heavily influenced by Tool and play in odd time signatures naturally. Plus I completely understand them just from playing them so much, but typical time signatures give me trouble when I'm trying to write...
    mity88
    Never really looked into them that much,i wil know tho,thanks man
    LEFTYCUSTOMSHOP
    THE TOP NUMBER DOESNT MATTER AS MUCH AS THE BOTTOM ONE. 6, 9, AND 15 OVER 8 ARE COMPOUND METERS. U COUNT THEM AS YOU WOULD COUNT THEIR SIMPLE METERS 6/8 IS USUALLY COUNTED 123123, 9/8 123123123.