Music Theory Fun, part 3: What Time (Signature) is It?

Music is just not music without rhythm, without something to tell you what the beat is, and where to accent the beat more strongly. In sheet music, that job belongs to the time signature, which tells you much of what you need to know about the music’s rhythm.

What Does a Time Signature Look Like, and Where Can You Find It?

At the beginning of each piece of sheet music, you’ll find a set of numbers that look like this:

4-4time Looks like a fraction or something, but it’s not–this is the time signature.

(You’ll also find time signatures printed elsewhere in the sheet music if the rhythm has changed during a song, but there’s always one at the beginning of the song, so that the musician knows what rhythm to play, how long to hold notes, etc.)

Deciphering the Time Signature’s Meaning

4-4time In each time signature, the top number represents the number of beats in a measure, or unit of time in music. (Measures basically help divide up the music so that it’s easier to find your place.) In this case, this top number tells us that there are 4 beats per measure. The bottom number tells us which kind of note time value counts as 1 beat(remembering from last week’s lesson). For this time signature, the bottom number of 4 tells us that the quarter note is equal to one beat (4 quarters making a whole).

This time signature is known as “4/4 time,” and is the most common time signature out there. You can have any combination of note time values in one measure as long as it adds up to 4 beats. You could have 4 quarter notes in one measure, or 1 half note and 2 quarters, 1 dotted half and 2 eighth notes, etc.

It sounds like the following two examples:
Click to hear 4/4 time counted out, with beats 1 and 3 stressed

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is a good example of slow 4/4 time with beats 1 and 3 stressed.

Click to hear 4/4 time counted out, with beats 2 and 4 stressed

“Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)” by Ashlee Simpson is a good example of a song in 4/4 time with beats 2 and 4 stressed (really stressed in this song!).

Why Are There Two Different Versions of 4/4?

Since 4/4 is so well-known and well-used, some people “feel” the stresses of the beat coming on 1 and 3, while others “feel” the strong beats on 2 and 4. Both are valid perceptions, and both have applications in various styles of music. For instance, country and Southern gospel music often uses the 1 and 3 stresses, while much of the popular rock/pop and hip-hop genres use the 2 and 4 stresses.

Other Symbols You’ll See in the Time Signature Slot

commontime 4/4 time can also be written like this–the “C” stands for “Common,” and this symbol means “Common Time,” since 4/4 is so often used in music (especially Western music).
cuttime This symbol, looking like a C cut in half, stands for “Cut Time,” and it means the song is in 2/2 time instead of 4/4–it’s 4/4 time cut in half. Basically, this music looks like it’ll be slow, but is actually really, really fast, and you’d better hold on to your hat while playing this. XD

Other Time Signatures with the Quarter Note = 1 Beat

For practice, let’s look at a few more time signatures.

3-4time This one looks a little different. The bottom number is the same, meaning that the quarter note represents one beat, but the top number is 3–this is called “3/4 time,” also known as “waltz time.” That means that there are only 3 beats in this measure. That means you can have 3 quarter notes in a measure, or a half note and a quarter note, a dotted half note, a half and 2 eighths, etc.

This is what 3/4 time sounds like:
Click to hear recording

“Kiss from a Rose” by Seal is an excellent example of moderate 3/4 time.

2-4time In this example, the quarter note is still representing one beat of music, but there are only 2 beats in a measure–this is called “2/4 time.” You can have 2 quarter notes per measure, or 1 half note, or 4 eighth notes, and so on.

This is what 2/4 time sounds like:
Click to hear 2/4 time counted out

The children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is actually sung in 2/4 time. (To me, 2/4 sounds like a faster 4/4, at least in rhythm.)

What About When the Bottom Number is Different?

Whoa, don’t these look different? But they can be deciphered just the same way as the others!

6-8time The top number, as we learned earlier, represents how many beats are in a measure. The top number here is 6, so there are 6 beats in a measure. The bottom number, however, is 8…which means that the eighth note represents one beat of music, instead of the quarter note.

So, in this time signature, which is called “6/8 time,” you could have 6 eighth notes in a measure, or 3 quarter notes, or 2 dotted quarter notes (worth 3 eighth notes each), etc.

Here’s what 6/8 time sounds like:
Click to hear 6/8 time counted out

“Silver and Cold” by A.F.I. is in a pretty fast 6/8 time, with beats 1 and 4 stressed.

To me, 6/8 time sounds like a slower 3/4 time, more like a swing or pendulum going back and forth.

12-8time Wow, in this time signature, there are 12 beats in a measure! And, with the 8 on the bottom, that means that you could have 12 eighth notes in a measure, or 6 quarter notes, or 4 dotted quarters, etc.

It’s not as many beats as it sounds, especially once you start hearing music in 12/8 time. This is actually my favorite time signature, because it sounds like really slow 4/4 time with extra little dance-like pulses added between each strong beat.

Here’s what 12/8 time sounds like:
Click to hear 12/8 time counted out

“Memory” from the musical Cats is a great example of 12/8 time.

Now You Know The Most Common Time Signatures!

These five time signatures that I’ve shown you today are the most commonly used in Western music. But there are many more out there, quirky and not often used. This blog post will help you understand the sheet music rhythms for about 70% of the Western music that is written these days.

Next Week: What’s All This about Keys?

Next week, we’ll learn about another important piece of information stored at the beginning of sheet music–key signatures! Just as important as time signatures, they tell you about the pitches you’re going to be using while you play.


All the recordings of beats being counted out were done by me–hence, the rather sad audio quality. 😛 Hopefully they’re useful to you in learning how different time signatures are counted out!

As for the images of time signatures I used in this blog post, they were retrieved from the following websites:
Time Signatures @

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