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:
Deciphering the Time Signature’s Meaning
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.
“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
Other Time Signatures with the Quarter Note = 1 Beat
For practice, let’s look at a few more time signatures.
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:
“Kiss from a Rose” by Seal is an excellent example of moderate 3/4 time.
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:
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?
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:
“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.
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:
“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!