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Time Signature in Music: Common Time Signatures and Examples

Laura Lohman, Liz Diamond-Manlusoc
  • Author
    Laura Lohman

    Laura Lohman has taught university arts and humanities courses for over 10 years. She has a PhD in the history of music (University of Pennsylvania), MS in Human Resources and Organization Development (the University of Louisville), and BM in music performance (Indiana University). She holds senior human resources, affirmative action, and project management certifications.

  • 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.

What is a time signature? Learn what a time signature in music is, the parts of a time signature, and review examples of common time signatures. Updated: 09/07/2021

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What is a Time Signature in Music?

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.

Commonly used time signatures.

Commonly used time signatures

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.

What is a Time Signature Used For?

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.

The time signature here consists of the numbers 6 and 8.

Music using a 6 8 time signature

Time signatures help each performer and the conductor quickly know:

  • The meter of the music
  • How many beats are in each measure, the unit of music separated by two bar lines
  • How each beat will be subdivided
  • What conducting beat pattern will be used

If the meter changes partway through a composition or movement, a new time signature is provided to signal this.

Two time signatures placed in the middle of the music signal changes of meter.

Time signatures inserted into measures to signal changing meter

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.

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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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Parts of a Time Signature

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.

A 3/4 time signature indicates that each measure will have a duration equivalent to 3 quarter notes.

Music using a 3 4 time signature

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.

A few time signatures, like the C shown at the beginning of this example, do not use numbers.

Music written with a common time time signature

Types of Time Signatures

Time signatures can be grouped into types based on whether they signal simple meter, compound meter, or complex/mixed meter.

Time Signatures for Simple 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.

Several numeric time signatures are commonly used to represent simple meters.

Time signatures for simple 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.

Two non-numeric time signatures are commonly used to represent simple meters.

Common time and cut time time signatures for simple meter.

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 for Compound Meter

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.

Several numeric time signatures are commonly used for compound meters.

Time signatures for compound meters

Time Signatures for Complex and Mixed Meter

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.

A 7/8 time signature is used to represent complex meter.

Seven eight time signature

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a 4/4 time signature?

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.

What is a 3/4 time signature?

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.

What is 2/4 time signature in music?

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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