Table of Contents
- What is a Time Signature in Music?
- Parts of a Time Signature
- Types of Time Signatures
- Understanding Common Time Signatures
- Lesson Summary
A time signature is a symbol used in Western music notation that indicates what meter is used in a composition. While the terms ''time signature'' and ''meter'' are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually refer to different things: one is seen, and the other is heard. The time signature is the symbol seen when reading a sheet of music. The meter on the other hand, is heard as an alternation of strong and weak beats, or regular pulses, when listening to a piece of music.
Each time signature has a different name, such as cut time, common time, '"two four,"' and '"six eight."' The '"four four"' time signature can be seen in the example above.
A time signature in music is provided at the beginning of each composition (or each movement in a multi-movement composition), to let the performers and conductor know what meter is being used. The time signature is placed before the first note of the composition.
Time signatures help each performer and the conductor quickly know:
If the meter changes partway through a composition or movement, a new time signature is provided to signal this.
Some music may lack a time signature. This can be seen in very short pedagogical examples, or for music that lacks a steady beat and is not divided into measures.
Most time signatures consist of two numbers. The bottom number of the time signature indicates what type of note will be used as the unit of each measure. Examples of unit notes include:
2 = Half note
4 = Quarter note
8 = Eighth note
The top number of the time signature determines the actual duration of the measure by indicating how many unit notes (or equivalent unit notes) there are in each measure. In the example below, the 3/4 time signature tells us that each measure will have a duration equivalent to 3 quarter notes. To be clear: this does not mean that each measure must have 3 quarter notes. Rather, each measure can be composed in such a way that the notes add up to the equivalent duration of 3 quarter notes. For example, 2 quarter notes and 2 eighth notes.
While time signatures are occasionally written in text as fractions, they are written in music notation as one number on top of the other with no slash or line separating them. The two numbers do not relate to each other mathematically like the numerator and denominator in a fraction.
Most time signatures consist of two numbers, but occasionally time signatures may use a shorthand such as using a 'C', or a C with a vertical line in the middle of it. Rarely, a time signature consisting of 3 numbers may be encountered in music written in the twentieth century or later, or in representations of music from other parts of the world.
Time signatures can be grouped into types based on whether they signal simple meter, compound meter, or complex/mixed meter.
Time signatures with 2, 3, or 4 as the top number are used to represent simple meter. In simple meter, the beat is subdivided into two shorter divisions. Simple meter can further be characterized as duple, triple, or quadruple depending on whether it contains 2, 3, or 4 beats per measure, respectively. In the time signatures for simple meter, the top number of the time signature is also the number of beats per measure. For example: time signatures 2/4 and 2/2 represent simple duple meter, while 3/4 and 3/8 represent simple triple meter, and 4/4 represents simple quadruple meter.
There are also two non-numeric time signatures that are used to represent simple meter: the time signatures consisting of a C and a C with a vertical line in the middle of it. The C time signature is called common time and communicates the same meaning as a 4/4 time signature, where each measure has a duration equivalent to 4 quarter notes and the quarter note is the unit beat.
When a vertical line is placed in the middle of the C, this time signature is called cut time. Cut time confers the same meaning as a 2/2 time signature, where each measure has a duration equivalent to two half notes and the half note is the unit beat. Mathematically, the duration of a measure in cut time is the same as the duration of a measure in common time. However, music in cut time is played faster than music in common time.
Time signatures with 6, 9, or 12 as the top number are used to represent compound meter. In compound meter, the beat is subdivided into three shorter divisions. Just like with simple meter, the number of beats per measure - 2, 3, or 4 - determines whether the meter is duple, triple, or quadruple, respectively. With compound meter however, the number of beats per measure is determined by dividing the top number by 3. For example: the time signature 6/8 represents compound duple meter with 2 beats per measure, while 9/8 represents compound triple meter with 3 beats per measure, and 12/8 represents compound quadruple meter with four beats per measure.
Other time signatures are used to represent complex meter and mixed meter. Complex meter or additive meter is typically represented by a time signature with a top number that is not 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, or 12. Commonly seen top numbers in time signatures for complex meter are 5 and 7. Examples include 5/4 and 7/8 time signatures.
Music in mixed meter changes meter frequently. Mixed meter can be represented by two time signatures in succession at the beginning of the music, or by using a different time signature in a subsequent measure whenever the meter changes. For example, the song 'America' from the musical West Side Story alternates measures in 6/8 and 3/4 time.
Commonly used time signatures for simple meter include 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. These are pronounced ''two four,'' ''three four,'' and ''four four.''
|Time Signature||Measure Duration||Beats Per Measure||Beat Duration||Beat Subdivision||Type of Meter|
|2/4||Equivalent to 2 quarter notes||2||Quarter note||2 eighth notes||Simple duple|
|3/4||Equivalent to 3 quarter notes||3||Quarter note||2 eighth notes||Simple triple|
|4/4 or Common time||Equivalent to 4 quarter notes||4||Quarter note||2 eighth notes||Simple quadruple|
|2/2 or Cut time||Equivalent to 2 half notes||2||Half note||2 quarter notes||Simple duple|
|3/8||Equivalent to 3 eighth notes||3||Eighth note||2 sixteenth notes||Simple triple|
These time signatures can be better understood by relating them to types of music in which they are commonly used. For example, the 3/4 time signature is often used in waltz music. Waltz music has three beats per measure: strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak. The 3/4 time signature is also used in minuets, including the third movements of symphonies. The 4/4 time signature or the C representing common time is often used in hymns and in the first movements of symphonies. The 2/4 time signature is often used in marches, polkas, and in quicksteps that were popular in the nineteenth century.
Of the time signatures for compound meter, the most commonly used is 6/8. This time signature is pronounced ''six eight.'' The 6/8 time signature is often used in jigs. Other time signatures for compound meter include ''nine eight'' and ''twelve eight.''
|Time Signature||Measure Duration||Beats Per Measure||Beat Duration||Beat Subdivision||Type of Meter|
|6/8||Equivalent to 6 eighth notes||2||Dotted quarter note||3 eighth notes||Compound duple|
|9/8||Equivalent to 9 eighth notes||3||Dotted quarter note||3 eighth notes||Compound triple|
|12/8||Equivalent to 12 eighth notes||4||Dotted quarter note||3 eighth notes||Compound quadruple|
Music written with a 6/8 time signature may be performed in two different ways, depending on the tempo, or the speed of the music. At a moderate or fast tempo, the dotted quarter note is treated as the beat, and there are two beats per measure. At a slow tempo, the eighth note may be treated as the beat, with 6 beats per measure.
Commonly seen top numbers for complex meter are 5 and 7. For example, Dave Brubeck's ''Take Five'' is written with a 5/4 time signature. This signals an additive meter in which each measure consists of 5 beats that can be counted as 3 beats plus 2 beats or 2 beats plus 3 beats.
A time signature is a symbol used in Western music notation that indicates what meter is used in a composition. Most time signatures consist of two numbers: the bottom number, which indicates what type of note will be used to determine the duration of each measure, and the top number, which indicates how many of those notes are equivalent to the duration of each measure.
Some time signatures are represented by non-numerical symbols such as common time (represented by the letter 'C'), and cut time (represented by a C with a vertical line through it). These two time signatures and time signatures with 2, 3, or 4 as the top number are used to represent simple meter. Time signatures with 6, 9, or 12 as the top number are used to represent compound meter.
Complex meter or additive meter is typically represented by a time signature with another top number such as 5 or 7. Mixed meter can be represented by two time signatures in succession at the beginning of each line, or by using a different time signature whenever the meter changes.
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A 4/4 (''four four'') time signature indicates that the duration of each measure is equivalent to 4 quarter notes. This time signature represents simple quadruple meter. Each measure will have 4 beats. The quarter note is the beat, and each beat will be subdivided into 2 eighth notes.
A 3/4 (''three four'') time signature indicates that the duration of each measure is equivalent to 3 quarter notes. This time signature represents simple triple meter. Each measure will have 3 beats. The quarter note is the beat, and each beat will be subdivided into 2 eighth notes.
A 2/4 (''two four'') time signature indicates that the duration of each measure is equivalent to 2 quarter notes. This time signature represents simple duple meter. Each measure will have 2 beats. The quarter note is the beat, and each beat will be subdivided into 2 eighth notes.
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