Time Signature

The Rhythm of the Music

A Time Signature consists of 2 figures in the form of a fraction, placed together at the beginning of every piece of music to fix the time of the rhythm of the music.

  • Tempo is the speed or rate of a piece of music usually measured in beats per minute (bpm), whereas rhythm is the way in which the tempo is played - the division of musical ideas or sentences into metrical portions. It is the timing of musical sounds and silences.
  • A Time Signature consists of an upper numeral and a lower numeral.
  • The upper numeral indicates how many beats there are in a bar.
  • The lower numeral indicates the note value which represents one beat.
  • In a musical score, the time signature appears at the beginning of the piece, immediately following the key signature. This can be in the form of a time symbol such as C which represents cut time (2/2), or in the form of stacked numerals such as 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 etc.
  • If the piece is in the key of C Major or A minor where there is no key signature (sharps or flats), the time signature is placed straight after the Clef sign.
  • Sometimes you will see another time signature midway through a piece. This occurs when there is a change of rhythm or timing. When this occurs you will see the new time signature following a bar line. All the music shown after the new time signature will be played according to the new time.

Common Time Signatures

  • 2/2 - denotes 2 half notes or 2 minim beats to the bar
  • 2/4 - denotes 2 quarter notes or 2 crotchet beats to the bar
  • 3/4 - denotes 3 quarter notes or 3 crotchet beats to the bar
  • 4/4 - denotes 4 quarter notes or 4 crotchet beats to the bar
  • 3/8 - denotes 3 eighth notes or quaver beats to the bar
  • 6/8 - denotes 6 eighth notes or quaver beats to the bar
alla breve

Stands for common or 4/4 time which means 4 quarter-note/crotchet beats in each bar

music alla breve

Alla Breve (cut time) - 2/2 time which means 2 half-note/minim beats per bar

Time is divided into 2 classes: Simple and Compound

  • Simple Time consists of undotted notes for beats each divisible into 2 equal parts

  • Compound Time consists of dotted notes for beats each divisible into 3 equal parts

Each class contains 3 kinds: a) Duple b) Triple c) Quadruple


Simple Time

  • Simple Duple has 2 undotted notes for beats in each bar - each divisible into 2 equal parts
  • Simple Triple has 3 undotted notes for beats in each bar - each divisible into 2 equal parts
  • Simple Quadruple has 4 undotted notes for beats in each bar - each divisible into 2 equal parts
Simple Time Signatures


Compound Time

  • Compound Duple has 2 dotted notes for beats in each bar - each divisible into 3 equal parts
  • Compound Triple has 3 dotted notes for beats in each bar - each divisible into 3 equal parts
  • Compound Quadruple has 4 dotted notes for beats in each bar - each divisible into 3 equal parts
Compound Time Signatures

Dotted Notes

When a dot is placed after a note, the time of the note is increased by half again.

  • A dotted whole-note or semibreve: 4 beats + 2 beats (½ of 4 beats) = 6 beats in total
  • A dotted half-note or minim: 2 beats + 1 beat (½ of 2 beats) = 3 beats in total
  • A dotted quarter-note or crotchet: 1 beat + 12 beat (½ of 1 beat) = 1 ½ beats in total
  • A dotted eighth-note or quaver: 12 + 14 (½ of ½ beat) = 34 of a beat in total
Note Name (American) Name (British) Beats
Dotted Whole Note / Semibreve Dotted Whole Note Dotted Semibreve 6
Dotted Half Note / Minim Dotted Half Note Dotted Minim 3
Dotted Quarter Note / Crotchet Dotted Quarter Note Dotted Crotchet 1 ½
Dotted Eighth Note / Quaver Dotted Eighth Note Dotted Quaver 34

Accent & Syncopation

Accent is stress or emphasis on certain notes. When the accent is moved to a weak beat, Syncopation is formed.

  • In Duple Time: (2 beats/bar) The accents are Strong - Weak
  • In Triple Time: (3 beats/bar) The accents are Strong - Weak - Weak
  • In Quadruple Time: (4 beats/bar) The accents are Strong - Weak - Medium - Weak

Syncopation is also formed when a note that is just before or just after the beat is stressed. You may have a 4/4 bar | 1& 2& 3& 4& | where the accent is placed on the & of 4&...

Normally the accent would be on beats 1 and 3, and with syncopation, beats 2 and 4, e.g. reggae. But in this example, the syncopated beat lies beyond the normal beats in the bar... & of 4&.

The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia...

Technically, "syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs, causing the emphasis to shift from a strong accent to a weak accent." "Syncopation is," however, "very simply, a deliberate disruption of the two-beat or three-beat stress pattern, most often by stressing an off-beat, or a note that is not on the beat..." more

The Use of Simple & Compound Time Signatures

Time Signatures

Simple Time Signatures and where they are used

4/4 : Common Time - Widely used in most forms of Western popular music. Most common time signature in rock, blues, country, folk, funk and pop including a wide variety of modern genres introduced over the last few decades.

2/2 : Cut Time or Alla Breve - commonly used in fast orchestral music and marches. You will also find it in musical theatre and some forms of popular music.

4/2 : Never found in early music and rare since 1600, although Brahms and other composers used it occasionally.

2/4 : Used for polkas and marches.

3/4 : Used for waltzes, minuets, scherzi, country & western ballads, and sometimes used in pop.

3/8 : Also used for the above, but usually suggests a faster tempo.

Compound Time Signatures and where they are used

6/8: Polkas Double jigs, tarantella, sega, barcarolles, marches, loures, and some rock music.

9/8: Compound Triple Time - occurs rarely - used in triple or 'slip' jigs.

12/8: Commonly used in slow blues. It is also known as the doo-wup or shuffle. It is being used in some forms of rock music and you will hear it in some jigs... a popular example of this is The Irish Washerwoman.
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