If you’ve been playing music for a while, you’re probably familiar with time signatures. If you’re still a beginner, most of your studies have likely been in 4/4 time, otherwise known as common time. The 4/4 time signature is a form of musical shorthand. It tells you the number of beats in a measure and what type of note gets a beat. So in the case of 4/4 time there are 4 beats per measure, and a quarter note gets the beat.
As you move further in your studies, you may come across a number of different time signatures. They often look scarier than they are! Once you understand how to read them, you’ll be able to interpret and play any of them.
Understanding Time Signatures
The key to understanding any time signature is understanding what the numbers mean. In a 3/4 time signature, otherwise known as waltz time, the top number (3) specifies three beats per measure. The bottom number (4) shows that the quarter note gets the beat. This rule is always true. As long as you understand this simple rule, you can determine the beats per measure and which note value gets the beat.
Common Time Signatures
The time signature you’ll see most is 4/4. This is also known as “common time” and is sometimes shown on a musical score as a capital C with no numbers. Another time signature to learn is 2/2. This is also known as cut time. If you see the symbol of the C with a line through it, that indicates cut time or 2/2. Now understanding these rules, time signatures like 2/4, and 3/4 should be self-explanatory.
Compound Time Signatures
The time signature 6/8 is also commonly seen, but it is considered a compound time signature. In a common time signature, subdivisions of the beat are broken into two units. In a compound time signature, subdivisions of the main beat (or upper number) are split into three equal parts, not two, so a dotted quarter note becomes a beat unit. The most common compound time signatures are 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 (all multiples of three). Because a dotted quarter note becomes a beat unit, 6/8 can be counted and felt as 2; 9/8 as 3; and 12/8 as 4. The subdivision of time can also be counted as 1/8th notes.
As a general rule, a slow tempo is counted as 6. At a faster tempo 6/8 would take the two beat feel. This is true with all compound time signatures. Tempo is one determining factor when deciding how to count and subdivide compound time; another factor is the notation. If the melody is written using dotted 1/4 notes in compound time, it’s generally counted in the smaller unit. For example, 12/8 would be counted as four.
Odd Time Signatures
So far we’ve looked at common and compound time signatures. The final category is odd time signatures. Odd time signatures are generally broken down into measures of common time when counting. The two most common odd time signatures are 5/4 and 7/4.
To break down odd time signatures, let’s first examine 5/4. This time signature has 5 beats per measure and a quarter note gets the beat. There are two subdivisions for 5/4 time. It can be thought of as a measure of 3/4 followed by a measure of 2/4 (ONE, two, three, FOUR, five). Or it can be a measure of 2/4 followed by a measure of 3/4 (ONE, two, THREE, four, five).
7/4 is broken down as a either a measure of 4/4 followed by a measure of 3/4, or a measure of 3/4 followed by a measure of 4/4. The way you subdivide determines the feel of the music. Often the composer or conductor will delineate how he would like the time signature subdivided.
Understanding how to read time signatures is easy; understanding how to interpret them comes with experience and practice. The composer will often give you clues by the way the music is notated. In compound time and odd time signatures, look at the melody to determine how to feel and count the measures. A great example of odd time signatures is the Dave Brubeck song “Take Five”. Listen to how the beat is subdivided and count along. Like any musical skill, the more you listen to and practice odd time signatures, the easier it will get!
Photo by Horia Varlan