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Time Signature in Music: Definition and Examples

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  • 0:05 Time Signature Purpose…
  • 0:54 Parts of a Time Signature
  • 3:22 Duple Meter and Triple Meter
  • 4:26 Simple and Compound Meter
  • 5:30 Complex and Mixed Meter
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Time signatures, or meters, are a way to communicate the pulse and feel of a piece of music. Musicians, dancers and listeners alike use them to interpret where the strong and weak beats lie, including their divisions. Find out the specifics of time signature in this lesson.

Time Signature Purpose and Definition

Have you ever seen one of those annoying infomercials for an exercise program? There's always some overenthusiastic instructor bouncing around, saying, 'Feel the beat!' But where is the beat? How can a composer and musician communicate something that is usually heard? The answer is time signature. A time signature, or meter, is a written indicator that shows the number of beats per measure and the type of note that carries the beat in a piece of music. The time signature also indicates the feel of a piece of music based on the divisions of the beat. While this is not the most earth-shattering piece of information, it is important in interpreting and understanding music throughout history and from around the world.

Parts of a Time Signature

Example of a quarter note
quarter example

The time signature is shown at the beginning of a piece of music, right after the key signature. If you look at the time signature, you'll see that it's made up of two numbers. The bottom number shows the type of note that carries the beat. In other words, the bottom number determines which type of note we see as the pulse of the music. In this example, we see that the bottom number is four. If we imagine this as a fraction with a one on top, we can recognize this as a quarter. This means that the quarter note carries the beat.

Example of an eighth note
one-eighth

Let's look at another example. Here, the bottom number is eight. When we imagine it as a fraction, we get 1/8 (or an eighth), so we know that the eighth note carries the beat. The most common time signatures use four or eight as the bottom number. But you can also have two or 16 as the bottom number, since these are also types of notes. Some rebel 20th century composers like to make sure you did your math homework by using irrational meter, where the meter has a bottom number that is not a type of note, like 6, to figure out divisions of a beat. But, that's an explanation for another day.

Example of six beats per measure
six-eighths

The top number shows the number of beats per measure. So if we see the time signature 3/4, we know that there are three beats per measure. Here, we see a four on top, so we know that 4/4 time has four beats per measure. In this example, we know that there are six beats per measure.

Example of three eighth notes
three-eighths

When we combine the information given to us by these two numbers, we no longer have to guess what the beat or feel of the music will be. In a meter, like 4/4, we can see that each measure will have the equivalent of four quarter notes. The bottom number tells us that the quarter note carries the beat, and the top number tells us that we need four of them to fill the measure. In a meter like 6/8, the bottom number tells us that the eighth note carries the beat, and the top number tells us that we need six of them to fill the measure. Look at this example: how would you interpret this? If you said that the measure is filled with three eighth notes, you are correct!

Duple Meter and Triple Meter

Aside from calculating beats, time signatures can also clue us in to the feel of the music. The two basic feels are duple meter and triple meter. As you might have guessed, duple means having measure divided into two beats, or groups of two, and triple meter means a measure divided into three beats, or groups of three. Meters like 4/4, 2/4 and 6/8 are examples of duple meter, because their measures divide into two groups. Duple meter is extremely common in popular music today, in everything from rock to rap to pop to reggae. In fact, 4/4 time is so common that it's actually called 'common time' and is sometimes shown as a letter C, for common. Meters like 3/4 and 9/8 are examples of triple meter, because their measures divide into three groups. Triple meter is also used in popular music, but you probably know it better from dances like the waltz.

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