Time Signatures

Most of the music heard in most genres of Western music relys on symmetrical time. This means that the number of pulses in the bar is divisible by two, i.e., there is a defined "center" of the bar; with an equal number of beats either side of this "center".

Ultimate Guitar
Firstly, this lesson is not for beginners. If enough people request it, I'll post a lesson covering the basic aspects of what a time signature is. But for now, I'll be concentrating on some of the more complex time signatures. Most of the music heard in most genres of Western music relys on symmetrical time. This means that the number of pulses in the bar is divisible by two, I. e., there is a defined "center" of the bar; with an equal number of beats either side of this "center". Symmetrical time signatures include 4/4, 6/8, 12/8, etc. Asymmetrical time signatures, as you may have guessed, are such that the number of pulses in the bar is NOT divisible by two, and when heard by Western ears, often sound like the "center" is "shifting" with each bar. Examples of asymmetrical time include 5/4, 7/8, 15/16, etc. Example 1 is a riff in 7/8 from the E minor pentatonic scale. Be careful to observe the accent marks, but play the notes such that they are rhythmically even. They're all eighth notes.
7/8 100 bpm
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Lets try another. This one's in 5/4, but not all the notes are even. Some are quarter notes and some are eighth notes (you can tell from the grouping). It's in E phrygian dominant
5/4 125 bpm
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Got the hang of it? Ok, now I'll introduce additive rhythms. These are rhythms that use two alternating time signatures. For example, a riff may be two bars long and contain one bar in 7/8 time and another bar in 5/8 time. For convenience, this is often referred to as (7+5)/8 although this is not considered correct musical grammar. Whenever additive time is used in a book, it will usually change time signature each bar rather than use the shorthand I described. This next riff is in A whole tone and is in (7+5)/8 time. For simplicity, all notes are eighth notes, but watch the accents.
7/8 5/8 repeat once
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Ok, that's about it for this lesson. But I'll leave you with something insanely difficult. It's two bars of 5/7 (yes, that's possible, very uncommon but possible). To get you started, here's one bar of 5 seventh-notes played on the low open E. This time, four spaces between notes is a quarter note.
{ 7 }


5/7 { 3 } { 5 }
{ 7 } { 7}
N. B. The last note is supposed to be spaced as per a quarter note, I didn't want to start a new line for the sake of two spaces. The second group of 7 is incomplete, though it would normally continue. It is possible to group notes accross bar lines in this fashion, though it's very uncommon. Next lesson is on polyrhythms, get ready!

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very nice article. I haven't heard too many bands who considering time sig. changes. Hopefully more people will pick this up so the next generation of muscians won't be so bland.
    Everybody seems to have a problem with the 5/7 bar... While extremely rare, and realistically not very useful, it does exist. Some classical composers experimented with these kinds of alternate notation systems. It all works in context of a musical piece with a more conventional time signature. For example, if a piece is in 4/4, and the composer wanted a bar of 3 evenly spaced notes (quarter note triplets) he could notate it as a bar of 4/3. It works if there is more of a metric modulation, say if this "triplet" pattern persisted for some considerable time, you would switch to 4/3. This way it feels more like a new, slower tempo, but in a very specific relation to the old tempo. This concept can be expanded to included septuplets (7 notes in the space of 8, or 6, or whatever the composer specifies) and so conceivably 5/7 or other crazy time signatures. But once again, this is very experimental music, and has not very much real-world application. The simpler way would be to notate septuplets. or whatever irregular grouping the composer has in mind.
    electric rocker
    this is not the greatest lesson. this lesson did a fairly good job at explaining the top number but if it is going to be for more advance people it would also explain the bottom number and how that relates to quarter notes half notes.. ect. That is the advanced part that takes a long time to figure out correctly
    the last one is actually, to explain it deeper than done so above (in the lesson), a bar of 5/4, tied as a 7:5 proportion, something like septupets, but they take the same amount of time as 5 notes, instead of 4.
    .....Also the example of the 5 notes on the open E is actually in 5/4 timing... If there are 5 quarter notes then it is 5/4 hence the 4 underneath....
    The first bar of the "5/7" riff contains 2 quarter notes followed by 3 eighth notes followed by 2 quarter notes. Therefore the timing for the first bar is 11/8. In the second bar there are 2 quarter notes followed by 5 sixteenth notes followed by 2 quarter notes. Therefore this bar is in 21/16. Theres no such timing as 5/7.....
    By the way, I don't think you really talked about how to actually learn to play in the time signatures. You only lightly introduced them and then threw out a rather pointless riff.
    sorry, but there's no such thing as 5/7 (five sevenths)... everything is based on halving notes, and therefore every time signature is described as a fraction with a denominator being either 2, 4, 8, 16 or 32. Even though I might agree with to some extend that it's possible making something out of this mathmatical pattern, it hasn't been properly introduced to any widely music notation system!
    Not very in-depth, but it does give the basics. Remembering accent patterns can be very useful in time signature, and figuring them out in a song. Also, knowing simple vs. compound time and the accent patterns and beat divisions for duple, triple and quadruple. Then you have your messed up time signatures which don't usually follow this, but if they're that messed up, chances are you may not play anything in that time.
    its been about a year and there has only been one comment (not including mine of course)
    Can you do another one but covering the basics? Because almost no one understand what you wrote
    Excellent lesson, although seventh notes don't actually exist. There are no odd numbered notes on the bottom, ever. The bottom number is usually 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128, although more are possible. The top can be anything. Basically, it's number of beats per measure over the rhythmic value of the note that gets the beat. I hope that helps.
    although this was helpful, I think somebody should write a more in depth article on time sigs.
    ei, can you give a lesson on the basics too. i want to know about time signatures too. i think knowing the basics in time signature would help me a lot in composing solos.
    dude nice job it would be nice if you write more give us time signutres of say blues, rock, r&b etc.
    Oops, i think i did get some of those backwards though. It's a weird concept that i still don;t fully understand. I'm more getting at the point that it does technically exist. If someone could actually explain it i would be curious.