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What Are Time Signatures?

Updated: 3 days ago

If you are unfamiliar with what those numbers mean at the beginning of a piece of music then this is the article for you! In this article we will be going over the following topics:

What Are Time Signatures?

When reading music, the first bit of information is what kind of clef is on the stave, then its key signature and after that you see a few numbers. These numbers are the time signatures. Time signatures are used to dictate the pulse of a song and how many pulses there are in each bar. You will see two numbers one over the other. Let’s look at what they are and what they do!

The Numerator (The Top Number)

Sometimes when we talk about time signatures they look like fractions in maths. So for example we have 4/4:

Example 1:

What Are Time Signatures - Picture 1 | Grokit Guitar
What Are Time Signatures - Picture 1 | Grokit Guitar

In music they are represented as one on top of the other. The top number represents how many beats there are in each bar or measure. With the previous example of 4/4 the 4 on top represents that there are 4 beats in each bar. The best way I remember what this means is the top part can be referred to “how many?”. 4/4 is also commonly referred to as four-four time. Now for the bottom number. The Denominator (The Bottom Number) The bottom number that’s used in time signatures denotes what kind of division or what kind of beat is played. Let’s take the example again of 4/4 we know what the top one means/does but the bottom one indicates the kind of subdivision of those beats. There are 4 beats but those 4 beats are divided into quarters making them quarter note beats. Each of those beats because of the bottom number indicates a 4 makes each beat a quarter note. So, we can summarise it as “what kind of beat”. I look at time signatures as How many beats at the top and what kind of beats at the bottom. This is uniform for other types of time signatures.

Which brings us onto our next topic!

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What are the different types of time signatures?

Common Time Signatures:

The most common time signature you will come across will be 4/4. It has been used for over a hundred years to give us our standard of how popular music is produced. This is what it looks like on the stave with each beat laid out.: Example 2:

What Are Time Signatures - Picture 2 | Grokit Guitar
What Are Time Signatures - Picture 2 | Grokit Guitar

The next common time signature after 4/4 is 3/4 If you have followed the explanation so far all you are doing is removing one quarter note. Because you have 3 as the top number and still have 4 as the bottom number a bar of quarter notes would look like this

Example 2.1

What Are Time Signatures - Picture 3 | Grokit Guitar
What Are Time Signatures - Picture 3 | Grokit Guitar

The effect of that time signature gives music a quickness and turns most songs into a waltz or ballad style. Giving a 1 2 3 feel.

Another common example of time signatures is 6/8. This is different to the last ones because the numbers have changed and we are no longer using quarter note subdivisions but using 8th note subdivisions. So now we are counting 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 but at a quicker rate because of the subdivision divides the notes even further. This too has a waltz feel but the bars feel longer than 3/4 they have a similar feel but are slightly different. A bar of 6/8 looks like this: Example 2.2

What Are Time Signatures - Picture 4 | Grokit Guitar
What Are Time Signatures - Picture 4 | Grokit Guitar

Often these types of time signatures can be referred to as compound time signatures.

Where the beat is subdivided into three equal parts, creating a sense of a triplet feel.

There are other more stranger types of time signatures known as Asynchronous Time Signatures.


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What Are Asynchronous Time Signatures?

Asynchronous time signatures are all the other time signatures that we don’t often commonly use in Western pop music.

The vibe of these time signatures makes the beats feel irregular and to me at least feel like they are pushing and pulling you in different directions more obtusely. For example: Example 3

What Are Time Signatures - Picture 5 | Grokit Guitar
What Are Time Signatures - Picture 5 | Grokit Guitar

This time signature is in 7/8 because the number is uneven in the amount of beats i.e. the 7. It feels incomplete but it still moves forward as its own thing but provides a feeling of irregularity to most popular songs we know to be in 4/4. This feeling can be used for dramatic effect and provide another mechanism to songwriting. There are plenty of other types of asynchronous time signatures, pretty much any of them that are outside the norm of 4/4 and waltz like triplet feels such as 3/4 or 6/8. Which leads me onto my next question.

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What Are The Differences Between Compound Time Signatures And Asynchronous Time Signatures?

The main differences are that compound time signatures feel steady and are more popularly used because of that fact. Most sounds you come across will be in those kinds of time signatures. In comparison to Asynchronous Time signatures which are more rarely used but can provide a different texture and feel that’s more urgent or less trustworthy. This is usually good to express certain moods that the compound time signatures cannot. So lastly let’s talk about the last topic:

Why It's Useful To Know Which Time Signature You Are In

The reason why you would want to know this information and how time signatures work is because it sets the pace of the song and it gives you a reasonable expectation of how to count the bars and how to interpret the time. The bit of information at the beginning of the piece of a song or during the song can rapidly inform you of how a song is meant to feel rhythmically. It can set you up to making the song feel the correct way its meant to. I hope this article has helped with explaining what time signatures are and when its useful to know them.

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