Music Theory

Explaining Time Signatures in Music

By Hannah Kendall
Image of a 2/4 time signature. Next to 2 says number of beats per measure. Next to four says type of beat

What are time signatures in music?

Time signatures are the glue that holds music together. Without them, the music risks falling a part! Always found at the beginning of the music, the time signature is a symbol with numbers on the top and bottom. Time signatures indicate how to play rhythm by organizing beats of music. It’s a way for our brain to recognize patterns and understand the relationship of notes to each other. It gives order and structure and even makes music easier to memorize and play.

How do you read a time signature in music? What do the numbers mean in a time signature?

The top number always indicates the number of beats per measure. The bottom number indicates the kind of note used to count the beat. Let’s take the 2/2 time signature for example. The top 2 tells us that there are two beats in each measure. The bottom 2 tells us that the half note now represents one beat. If the bottom number is four, it means the beats are equivalent to quarter notes. If the bottom number is 8, it means that the beats are equivalent to eighth notes.

What is meter in music?

Often in music, the words meter and time signature are used interchangeably. However, there’s a subtle difference! Time signature specifically refers to the fractional symbol. Meter is how the music is organized, referring to the number of beats per measure and how those beats are divided.

It’s important to know that in Western music there are different types of meters. The most common are duple meter (two beats per measure), triple meter (three beats per measure), and quadruple meter (four beats per measure). Now, within these categories are simple and compound meters. Don’t worry! All you need to know is that with simple meters, a beat can be divided into two equal parts.

Simple meters are the most common and include  2/2, 2/4, 4/4, and 3/4 time. Most rock, pop, country, and folk music is composed of simple time making these time signatures the most straightforward to figure out. On the other hand, in compound meters, beats tend to be broken down into three equal parts and include time signatures like 6/8, 12/8, and 9/4.

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Do time signatures in music matter?

Absolutely! Time signatures in music organize the rhythm. Rhythm creates order, structure, and consistency. Rhythm also tells us which beats are “strong” and which beats are “weak.” Depending on the time signature, certain beats are accented (a.k.a. the strong beats) while others are not.

For example, in 4/4 time there are four beats per measure, and the quarter note gets one beat. Naturally the strongest beat is the first, with the third beat also being emphasized (although often to a lesser degree than the first). One would count 4/4 time signatures like this: ONE, two, THREE, four, ONE, two, THREE, four. And so on. Take We Will Rock You by Queen for example. The emphasis on the first and third beats becomes clear in the chorus: WE will WE will ROCK you. Imagine how “We Will Rock You” would sound if it were written in 3/4 time. The accents would then change, giving the song a completely different feeling.

What’s the difference between a 2/4 time signature vs 4/4 time signature?

The 4/4 time signature is also called Common time, often represented with a “C.” This time signature is in quadruple meter and is made of four recurring quarter note beats. As mentioned earlier, the beats fall as strong – weak – medium – weak. The 2/4 time signature, also known as Cut Time, is represented with a line through the “C.” This meter has two recurring quarter note beats and is typically faster than 4/4. It also has a different pattern of strong and weak beats.

In truth, it is often hard to tell the difference between 2/4 from 4/4 just from listening. However, compare Wolfgang Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca in 2/4 to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees in 4/4. Notice where the emphasis falls in Rondo Alla Turca. There’s a heavy alternating between the strong first beat and weaker second beat. The composition is fast and lively and maintains a steady pulse throughout the whole piece. Stayin Alive has a similar alternation of strong – weak – strong – weak beats. However, the four beats in the chorus makes the time signature clear: HA ha ha ha STAYIN alive stayin alive. The first beat is often the strongest out of all four beats.

What does a 3/4 time signature mean?

Let’s take what we’ve learned about time signatures and apply it to a 3/4 meter. First, we know that the three indicates that there will be three beats in every measure, indicating that the song is in triple meter. The four tells us that each of these beats can be subdivided by 2. This means that each beat is equivalent to a quarter note or two eighth notes. We also know that the 3/4 time signature is a simple time signature because the quarter note beats are divisible by 2.

Another way to think about a 3/4 time signature is to remember the waltz. In a waltz, the first beat is distinctly emphasized while the second and third beats fade into the background. In Dmitri Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2, there’s a recognizable “oom-pa-pa” sound, where the beats follow a pattern of strong-weak-weak. Another example of 3/4 time can be found in a minuet.

What are some of the different time signatures in music?

All time signatures are categorized as regular or irregular. Regular times signatures have a top number that can be divided by 2,3, or 4 which means that 4/4, 6/8, and 9/8 all fall into this category. These time signatures feel familiar, with 4/4 being the most common time signature. These are all meters that are easier to dance to compared to irregular time signatures. Irregular time signatures are where it gets interesting. These meters cannot be divided into equal groups because the top number is odd. Examples include 5/8, 7/8, 5/4, and 7/4.

Although irregular time signatures aren’t as common, they are certainly still used. The Mission Impossible theme is an example of 5/4 being used in a popular, easily recognizable composition. The irregular time signature gives the song a driving, rushing momentum, always pushing into the next measure. Another famous example of an irregular time signature is Pink Floyd’s Money written in 7/4.

Hope you’ve enjoyed exploring time signatures. Next time you’re listening to music, try to listen for the time signature and think about why the artist might have used it in their song.

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