Time Signatures From Basic Meters To Compound Or Odd Meters. Part 1

This is a beginning lesson on time signatures Part 1 is the basic structure of timing and Part 2 will be in Odd meters and Compound time.

Ultimate Guitar
Just a quick note about guitarists and time signatures: Often times we don't think we need them and think to ourselves, "Can't I just listen to a song and play it?" However, knowing your time signatures is very valuable knowledge to have. So power through this if your one of those guitarist that thinks they don't want this type of lesson. At the beginning of any piece of music you will see two numbers one on top of the other that set what is called the Time Signature or the Meter of any piece of music from Handel to Frank Zappa. What do those numbers mean? Now bare with me all of you that all ready know this. Well, it breaks down like this: The top number of the time signature indicates the number of beat you are going to count for each measure you play. Let say this number is 4 (remember we are starting with the basics here). So that number is 4 and means there is four beats you will have to count. Easy enough right? OK, the bottom number tells you the value of the top number. What does that mean? Let me give a little diagram to explain the values. In 4/4 time signature,
The whole note =     4 beats
The half note =      2 beats
The quarter note =   1 beat
The eighth note =    a half beat
The sixteenth note = 1 quarter of the beat
and so on... These are all values of the measure. so if you have 4/4 time you can only have 1 whole note per measure. You can only have 2 half notes per measure. You can only have 4 quarter notes per measure ....etc. The below example using the A string show 4 quarters notes of 4/4 time signature.
    1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &|1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &|
What would the above example look like if it were just whole notes? Simple, It would be one note in each measure.

    1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &|1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
It's simple, for the most part it's when we get into breaking up these whole notes that gets tricky. Which is why I put the count marking below both of those examples. How do we count the measures once we have the proper time signature and notes? Well, if you notice right below the two examples above, there are numbers(1234) with an ampersand after them. Those numbers and the ampersand are beats. That is how to count them. Basically, you are saying to yourself as you are playing this:1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and If you have a metronome set it to 60 beats per minute(bpm) which is roughly the beat of your heart (unless your a smoker...lol). In between the metronome beeps put the word "and" say to yourself or out loud doesn't really matter as long as you say it in time with the metronome. If you don't have a metronome go to this website. It's an awesome online metronome you can use. Ok for you speed guys....Lets get into breaking down the measure even farther, to eighth and sixteenth notes. We are going to stay in 4/4 time signature for now. Remember above when I mentioned the eighth note as half of the beat of the quarter notes? Here is what it looks like in tab and in a measure.
    1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &|1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Ok so if there are 4 beats in a measure, which is what? The top or bottom number? Answer: The top number. If each one of those gets a beat, but you break it down to eighth notes then that splits the four notes into eight right? So if you count the notes in the above example, there are eight notes. The four beats of the measure are still happening but they are split. Go to your online metronome and practice eighth note now that you understand them. Next, we split the eighth note in half to what is called the sixteenth notes. Here is where it gets a little more complicated. In 4/4 time signature how many sixteenth notes are in a measure? Simple. Sixteen notes are played in that measure. The complicated part isn't knowing how many notes there are, but in how to count them. Let me show you by example first. With all the other beats in the measure you were saying to yourself "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and" etc. Right? This changes with the sixteenth note. How? Look at the example.
    1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
(This is just 1 measure, just to clarify) How do I say 1 e & a? Here is the word version of using the method of counting: The 1 is said like the number One. The e is said like a word with a y ending....like jerk(y) or and in Spanish. The & is just "and" The a is said like "duh" only leave out the d Alright guys and gals thanks for bearing with me if you knew most of this. But, I want to end Part 1 with a comparison from say, 3/4 to 4/4 time signature. How many beats are in the time signature 3/4? Remember, the top number is the beats and the bottom number is the value of the beat. Here is an example, these are two measure of whole notes in 3/4 just strike and count:
    1 & 2 & 3 & |1 & 2 & 3 &
Alright, take this example and on your own break it down to the half note, the quarter note, the eighth note, and the sixteenth note. Good luck and try to always practice with a metronome... Even if you hate it. Also, leave comments of questions or additions and I will add them accordingly... Thanks!

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/lessons/s... hythm_beyond_44.html this is my similar lesson, aimed at more intermediate to advanced playing, for anyone who wants to expand upon the themes touched on here, namely odd meters. Your lesson does a fine job of covering the basics, and I'll be waiting for the follow up.
    hello, it is a nice lesson, but i have some difficulties to understand the bottom number thing.