How to Work out a Time Signature

Three Methods:Learning Key TermsDecoding Time SignaturesApplying it to Music

The time signature of a given piece of music determines how many beats the piece has per measure, and what type of note represents a single beat. The time signature is indicated on the musical staff just after the clef and key signature. It is not typically displayed more than once unless the time signature changes.

Method 1
Learning Key Terms

  1. 1
    Define “Beat.” In music, the beat is the steady pulse. Beats are grouped into measures. The time signature at the start of the piece determines how many beats appear in each measure and which type of note receives the beat. Sometimes a note falls on the beat, other times a rest lands on the beat.[1]
  2. 2
    Define “Measure.” Measures, or bars, group beats together. A single vertical line separates one measure from another. Each measure contains the same number of beats. However, if the time signature changes in the middle of the song, the number of beats in each bar will change too.[2]
  3. Image titled Work out a Time Signature Step 1
    3
    Define “Time Signature.” The time signature appears to the right of the clef and key. It consists of two numbers and is written as a fraction. The time signature tells musicians how many beats are in each measure and what type of note receives the beat.[3]
  4. 4
    Define types of notes and their values. In music there are five very common types of notes: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. Their values are all relative to each other.
    • For example, in 4/4 time:
      • Whole note receives 4 beats.
      • Half note receives 2 beats.
      • Quarter note receives 1 beat.
      • Eighth note receives ½ beat
      • Sixteenth note receives ¼ beat.
    • For example, in ⅜ time:
      • Whole note receives 8 beats.
      • Half note receives 4 beats.
      • Quarter note receives 2 beat.
      • Eighth note receives 1 beat
      • Sixteenth note receives ½ beat.

Method 2
Decoding Time Signatures

  1. 1
    Understand the top number. A time signature contains two numbers and is written as a fraction. The top number represents the number of beats in one measure of music.[4] Common top numbers include:
    • For example, if the top number is “4”, then each measure consists of four beats. If the top number is “6”, then the measure consists of six beats.
  2. 2
    Understand the bottom number. In a time signature, the bottom number represents the type of note that receives the beat. Each type of note is assigned a specific number.
    • “1”: Whole note (the whole note is worth one beat)
    • “2”: Half note (the half note is worth one beat)
    • “4”: Quarter note (the quarter note is worth one beat)
    • “8”: Eighth note (the eighth note is worth one beat)
    • ”16”: Sixteenth note (the sixteenth note is worth one beat)[5]
  3. 3
    Understand the time signature as a whole. After you’ve viewed the top and bottom numbers independently, you can view the two numbers as a whole. Below are a view examples:
    • 4/4: each bar has four beats and the quarter note is worth one beat.
    • 3/4: each bar has three beats and the quarter note is worth one beat.
    • 2/2: each bar has two beats and the half note is worth one beat.
    • 6/8: each bar has six beats and the eighth note is worth one beat.[6]
  4. 4
    Identify time signature symbols. Instead of numbers, sometimes the time signature is represented by a symbol. The letter “C” stands for common time and it is used to replace 4/4 time. The letter “C” with a slash through it stands for cut time and is used to replace 2/4 time.[7]

Method 3
Applying it to Music

  1. 1
    Counting in 4/4 time. When the time signature reads 4/4, each measure has four beats and the quarter note is worth one beat. This means that the whole note is worth four beats, the half note is worth 2 beats, the eighth note is worth ½ beat, and the sixteenth note is worth ¼ beat.
    • If the measure had four quarter notes, you would count the measure as “1, 2, 3, 4.”
    • If the measure had one quarter note followed by six eighth notes, you would count the measure as “1, 2-&, 3-&, 4-&.” “&” represents a ½ beat.
  2. 2
    Counting in 2/2 time. When the time signature reads 2/2, each measure receives two beats and the half note is worth one beat. This means that the whole note is worth two beats, the quarter note is worth 1/2 beat, the eighth note is worth 1/4 beat, and the sixteenth note is worth 1/8 beat.
    • If the measure had two half notes, you would count the measure as “1, 2.”
    • If the measure had four quarter notes, you would count the measure as “1-&, 2-&.” “&” represents a 1/2 beat.
    • If the measure had 4 sixteenth notes followed by one half note, you would count the measure as “1-e-&-a, 2.” “e-&-a” represents a ¼ beat.
  3. 3
    Counting in 6/8 time. When the time signature reads 6/8, each measure receives six beats and the eighth note is worth one beat. This means that the whole note is worth four beats, the half note is worth 4 beats, the quarter note is worth 2 beats, and the sixteenth note is worth 1/2 beat.
    • If the measure had six eighth notes, you would count the measure as “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.”
    • If the measure had 3 quarter notes, you would count the measure as “1-2, 3-4, 5-6.”.
    • If the measure had 4 sixteenth notes followed by one half note, you would count the measure as “1-&, 2-&, 3-4-5-6.” “&” represents a ½ beat.

Tips

  • It is nearly impossible to determine a time signature just from listening to a song.

Things You'll Need

  • Music source

Article Info

Categories: Songs and Song Writing