How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (2023)

  • Categories time signatures
  • Date November 2, 2020
  • Comments2 Comments

To the untrained eye, sheet music can look a little intimidating.

If you're not familiar with reading music you're probably wondering what exactly a time signature is. What are those fractions even supposed to mean?

Don't worry! We have the answers and explain everything you need to know about the music theory basics surrounding time signatures.

But first, let's introduce today's video host.

Vitali Tkachenka

Vitali Tkachenka is the Director of E-Learning and an Instructor for the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media.

Vitali is the author of 'Modern Scales Concepts,' 'Diatonic Modes Concepts,' 'Killer Technique: Guitar', and 'Technique Workout for the Modern Guitarist.'

Today he's going to teach you how easy it can be to read time signatures.

Check out the videos below, along with the supplemental highlight transcriptions so you can conquer time signatures.

Table of Contents:

  • The Top Number of a Time Signature
  • The Bottom Number
  • What if the Bottom Number is 4?
  • What if the Bottom Number is 8?
  • What if the Bottom Number is 16?
  • Wrapping it Up

The Top Number of a Time Signature

How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (2)

Let's finally reveal what those fractions mean. Time signatures are represented by two numbers written on a staff.

(Video) Time Signatures, Bars and Barlines

The number at the top can be almost any number you can think of. For the purposes of this example, we'll utilize the number two. This top number tells us how many beats we have in the measure. Therefore, the top number defines the length of the measure.

In our example, to complete one measure of our notation, we need to have two clicks of a metronome.

However, the top number can never be the number one, because the measure would only be one single click of the metronome. So, keep in mind that two is the lowest number the top number of a time signature can be.

In traditional music, the top number is never greater than 16, but in modern notation, it can go up to 32.

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The Importance of the Bottom Number

How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (3)

Unfortunately, some people may ignore the bottom number of the time signature after gathering how many beats are in a measure.

This is a major mistake as the bottom number is incredibly important.

The bottom number gives you an idea of how to count the notation of a particular time signature.

Let's say we have the number two at the bottom. That tells you that every click of your metronome will be equal to a half note in that particular measure.

And right now, we have two beats in the time signature that will be equal to a single half note.

It's vital to understand that every note value defined by your time signature's bottom number will always be counted as a number (rather than an "and,") because it will always be played with a click of your metronome.

If you want to write quarter notes in the measure, quarter notes will be counted as a part of a beat.

Therefore, in our current 2/2 time signature (also known as cut time), two quarter notes will fit in the click of a metronome.

(Video) TIME SIGNATURES EXPLAINED // Learn Music Theory

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What if the Bottom Number is 4?

How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (4)

The next number we will discuss being at the bottom of the time signature is the number four.

For simplicity, and similar to the video above, we will use both a four on top and a four on the bottom of the time signature.

What does this four on the bottom tell us? The bottom number four now dictates that every click of your metronome will be equal to a single quarter note.

What if we decide to fill out the measure with more notes? There are notes that are twice as short as quarter notes that are called eighth notes.

In our 4/4 measure example, we can put an eighth note between every quarter note to speed it up.

However, not every note will be played with a metronome click. These notes will be played on a count in between the metronome clicks that's called an "and" and written with a "+" designation.

To count the measure we would say," one 'and' two 'and' three 'and', etc." If you have notes that are longer than quarter notes, those notes will occupy several clicks of your metronome.

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What if the Bottom Number is 8?

How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (5)

Now let's discuss an example where every beat of our metronome will be equal to an eighth note.

In this case, we'll make our top number a six, which means we have six beats (or six clicks of our metronome) per measure.

Our bottom number will be an eight, so every click of our metronome will equal a single eighth note.

(Video) How to Read and Understand Time Signatures in Music

If there are notes longer than eighth notes in this measure, like quarter notes or half notes, they will be counted as multiple clicks of our metronome. However, whole notes will not fit in this time signature because there's not enough space for it.

To simplify our counting, we can organize our eighth notes in groups of three. Visually it looks much more symmetrical, and it simplifies the counting process.

Be sure to check out the video above to better grasp how it simplifies the counting process and why it is different than a triplet.

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What if the Bottom Number is 16?

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And finally, what if the bottom number of the time signature is 16?

Like the example in the video, let's use the number four for our top number, which means we'll have four beats in this measure.

When we have 16 at the bottom, it means that every click of your metronome is equal to one 16th note, which is a pretty short note.

So now we have four beats, and every beat is equal to a 16th note.

16th notes can be pretty complex to look at and track. Unfortunately, you are pretty limited with how you can organize these notes.

The best way to go about organizing the notes is to put them into groups of two.

Don't forget that every 16th note is not counted as a certain instance of your beat, but it is actually equal to a single beat or click of your metronome. The beats in-between the 16th notes would be counted as 32nd and 64th notes, but we won't get into those very fast notes today.

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Wrapping It Up

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(Video) Time Signatures Explained

As you can see, the bottom number in a time signature is critical because it determines which type of note you count as a number or a click on your metronome.

At the bottom, you can have the numbers two, four, eight, and sixteen.

The top number can be any number from two to 32 in modern music and 2 to 16 in traditional music.

You should always pay attention to both numbers, not just the top number that determines the number of beats, but also the bottom number, so you know how to count properly.

Combining both parts of the time signature is the only way to correctly read music and know you are performing the correct way.

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Learn More With Vitali

With just a little practice, you will be able to quickly grasp the basics of time signatures. When learning music, there is no substitution for practice.

Why not practice with Vitali Tkachenka at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media?

The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media offers several degree programs for musicians and producers. These include the following:

  • Music Production and Audio for Media Associate Degree
  • Music and Technology Associate Degree: Concentration in Guitar, Voice, Bass, Drums, or Keyboard
  • Online Certificate in Music and Technology: Guitar or Bass Concentration
  • Certificate in Music Production
  • Performance Certificate: Focus in Guitar, Voice, Bass, Drums, or Keyboard

Note: During this anxious and challenging time we currently live in, AIMM is proud to let students completely control their learning experience by choosing courses online, on-campus, or hybrid.

We know choosing the right music school is a big deal, so why not get a taste first? Click the button below to check out AIMM's Free Online Course! Discover how AIMM can benefit your music career today.

How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (8)

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How To Understand and Read Time Signatures in Music (9)

(Video) Reading Time Signatures - Music Theory Crash Course

Vitali Tkachenka

Vitali Tkachenka is the Director of E-Learning and an Instructor for Atlanta Institute of Music and Media. He is responsible for teaching scales, reading, music theory, and creating online music courses. Vitali is the author of ‘Modern Scales Concepts’, ‘Diatonic Modes Concepts’, ‘Killer Technique: Guitar’, and ‘Technique Workout for the Modern Guitarist’. He has played guitar on releases from T.S. Band, Nota Bene, Da Cynosure, Marina Morozova, Snooze Band, Nancy Gerber, TY Steele Band, and Adam Nitti. He also has several solo releases including ‘Fly Away’, ‘Sides’, and ‘Sometime Tomorrow’. He is endorsed by One-Control, Atomic Amplifiers, Dean Markley, Carvin Audio, WGS Speakers, Godin Guitars, Radial Engineering, Kiesel Guitars, Eastman Guitars, and Diago Pedalboards. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Music from A.M.Shirokov Institute of Modern Knowledge and a Certificate from Atlanta Institute of Music and Media in Guitar. He is also an AVID certified operator in Pro Tools for music production. As a native of Belarus, Vitali was featured on a national radio broadcast of The Renaissance of Guitar. After moving to the United States to study guitar at AIMM, Vitali draws from inspiration from musicians such as Nite Driscoll, Randy Hoexter, Steve Rieck, Bill Hart, Rob Schumann, Trey Wright, Carl Culpepper, David Poole, Corey Christiansen and Jimmy Herring.


What is the easiest way to understand time signatures? ›

Time signatures consist of two elements: a top number and a bottom number. The top number tells us the number of beats in each measure. The bottom number in time signature tells you what note values those beats are. If the bottom number is a 4, it means the beats are quarter notes (four quarter notes in a measure).

How can you identify the time signature of a song? ›

A time signature tells you how the music is to be counted. The time signature is written at the beginning of the staff after the clef and key signature. Time signatures consist of two numbers written like a fraction. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats to count.

What are the 4 types of time signatures? ›

There are various types of time signatures, including: simple (such as 3/4 or 4/4), compound (e.g., 9/8 or 12/8), complex (e.g., 5/4 or 7/8), mixed (e.g., 5/8 & 3/8 or 6/8 & 3/4), additive (e.g., 3+2+3/8), fractional (e.g., 2½/4), and irrational meters (e.g., 3/10 or 5/24).

What are the 3 common time signature? ›

There are three which are the most common: duple (2/2, 2/4, 6/8), triple (3/4, 9/8, 3/2), and quadruple (4/4, 12/8, 4/2). A duple meter has two beats per measure, a triple meter has three beats per measure, and a quadruple meter has four beats per measure.

How can you tell if a song is 3 4? ›

3/4 time: A song in 3/4 time has three beats per measure and is counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. This time signature is also quite common and is often referred to as waltz rhythm.

What does a 6 8 time signature mean? ›

6/8 time signature has six eighth notes in each measure. It's in compound meter, with two large groups of three eighth-note beats each. Thus, it has a feel of two “big beats” with accents on beats 1 and 4, while 3/4 has a feel of three “big beats” with accents on 1, 2, and 3.

What are the 7 musical notes? ›

In the chromatic scale there are 7 main musical notes called A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. They each represent a different frequency or pitch. For example, the "middle" A note has a frequency of 440 Hz and the "middle" B note has a frequency of 494 Hz.

How do you count 4/4 time signature? ›

In the 4/4 time signature, the numbers tell you that each measure will contain four quarter note beats. So each time you tap the beat, you're tapping the equivalent of one-quarter note.

What is the most commonly used time signature? ›

While 4/4 is the most commonly used time signature, there are other types. Many, in fact. And they exist to give a different feel to the music we compose. Let's listen to it!

What is the most common time signature? ›

4/4 time is also known as “common time” because it is the most common time we use in Western music.

How do you read a 2/4 time signature? ›

In 2/4 time, the top and bottom number tell us how many beats will be in each measure and what kind of note will receive 1 beat. In the case of 2/4 time, the top number says we will have 2 beats in each measure while the bottom number indicates that a quarter note will receive 1 beat.

How many beats is a whole note? ›

In the musical world, we can start with the whole note as the basic unit to be divided up. It receives 4 beats. Using the note value tree above, answer the following questions.

How do you explain 3/4 time signature? ›

The 3/4 time signature means there are three quarter notes (or any combination of notes that equals three quarter notes) in every measure. As we learned in the prior lesson, because there is a 4 on the bottom, the quarter note gets the beat (or pusle).

What is a 7/8 time signature? ›

7/8 time contains two simple beats and one compound beat. Again, the order of the beats does not matter. The compound beat can even be positioned between two simple beats. 8/8 time contains two compound beats and one simple beat. Sometimes, people confuse 8/8 with 4/4, since both have 8 eighth notes.

Why is there no 3 3 time signature? ›

There's no such thing as a third note so thus there is no such thing as 3/3 time.

How can you tell if a song is 6 8? ›

How to hear and feel a 6/8 time signature
  1. Notice that there are 2 beats per bar.
  2. Listen for whether each beat seems to subdivide into two or into three. If it's two then the time signature is 2/4, if each divides into three then it's 6/8.

Is there an app to identify time signature? ›

Find the tempo, key and time signature of any song. Explore millions of in depth song analyses powered by Spotify and try out the song specific online metronome.

How do you tell if a song is thick or thin? ›

A piece of music has a thick texture if there are many layers of instruments, or a lot of melodies and harmonies being played at the same time. What is this? A thin texture, on the other hand, is one where there are only a few instruments playing, or there are only one or two melodies and harmonies.

How do you understand rhythm in music? ›

In music theory, rhythm refers to the recurrence of notes and rests (silences) in time. When a series of notes and rests repeats, it forms a rhythmic pattern. In addition to indicating when notes are played, musical rhythm also stipulates how long they are played and with what intensity.

What is 3/8 time signature called? ›

3/2 and 3/8 are also simple triple. 4/4 time is classified as simple quadruple due to its four beats which can be divided into two notes. 4/2 and 4/8 are also simple quadruple.

What does the 8 in 3/8 mean in music? ›

8 means three eighth-notes (quavers) per bar, which are beats at slower tempos (but at faster tempos, 3. 8 becomes compound time, with one beat per bar). The most common simple time signatures are 2. 4, 3.

How do I memorize music notes? ›

Some helpful mnemonics to remember this are “All Cows Eat Grass” or “All Cars Eat Gas”. The note names on the lines of the bass clef staff are G-B-D-F-A. Some helpful mnemonics to jog your memory are “Good Boys Do Fine Always” or “Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always”.

What does MI7 mean in music? ›

A MI7 is a minor chord with a minor seventh. C MA7 is a major chord with a major seventh. C 7 is a major chord with a minor seventh (dominant 7th chord)

How can I teach myself to read music? ›

These tips can help you if you're a beginning string musician, or if you just think learning to read music would be cool.
  1. Think of Music as a Language. ...
  2. Focus on the Basic Symbols. ...
  3. Count Silently Every Time You Read. ...
  4. Practice Reading Music without Your Instrument. ...
  5. Pace Yourself.
1 Feb 2017

What does C mean in piano? ›

Answer: You've probably seen a curious C symbol at the beginning of a your sheet music after the clef and key signature - this is simply another way of writing “common time,” a.k.a. the 4/4 time signature.

Do time signatures matter? ›

Do time signatures matter? Of course they do! A time signature is the first element used to establish musical motion, that is to say, rhythm, beat, pulse, time, and groove. The time signature is so important that on a piece of sheet music it is the third thing written —after the clef indication and the key signature.

Why is 4/4 time signature so common? ›

As you know by now, 4/4 is by far the most popular time signature in the world. With four steady beats in each measure, it provides for a very stable rhythm. The top number in the time signature is easily divisible by two, which is what makes it feel "even." This is also true for time signatures like 2/4, 2/2, or 12/8.

What are weird time signatures called? ›

What is an Odd Time Signature? An odd time signature, sometimes known as an irregular, complex, asymmetric or unusual time signature, is any time signature doesn't fit into the three categories of regular time signatures: What is this? These categories of regualr time signatures all have equal beats in a bar.

What is the key of the song? ›

The key of a song is the note or chord the music is centered around, the tonic. For instance, if you were playing in the key of C, the C major chord would be the tonic, or 1, chord.

How do you calculate a 3/16 time signature? ›

Each beat totals three sixteenth notes, since 16 is the bottom number of the time signature. Three sixteenth notes total a dotted eighth note.

Why is it important to identify time signature? ›

The time signature of a piece of music is one of the key clues that can help you understand the rhythm and structure of the piece. It tells you how the music is to be counted, what beats are emphasized, and most importantly, what the “feel” of the music is likely to sound like.


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2. How to Read Time Signatures - Music Lessons
3. Time Signatures Part 1: The Basics (Music Theory)
4. Basic Time Signatures (Piano Theory)
5. How to make time signatures WAY less confusing
(Charles Cornell)
6. Key Signatures - Everything You Need To Know in 6 minutes
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