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Music

Guide to Time Signatures in Music: 7 Common Meter Signatures

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 17, 2020 • 3 min read

When it comes to reading music, understanding time signatures is essential to understanding musical notation and the rhythm of a piece of sheet music.

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What Are Time Signatures in Music?

Time signatures, or meter signatures, indicate how many beats are in each measure of a piece of music, as well as which note value is counted as a beat. Time signatures are located at the beginning of the staff (a set of five lines used to dictate each note’s pitch), after the clef and key signature.

What Are Note Values in Music?

A note’s value is its duration. Musical notes vary in duration, and when they’re written on sheet music, notes of different lengths are depicted in different ways. Most Western sheet music gets divided into measures, and the most common of these is a measure containing four beats.

  • A whole note is a single note that covers the entirety of a 4-beat measure
  • A half note is a single note that covers half of a 4-beat measure
  • A quarter note is a single note that covers one-quarter of a 4-beat measure
  • An eighth note covers 1/8th of a 4-beat measure
  • A sixteenth note covers 1/16th of a 4-beat measure

Some music has even smaller subdivisions: 32nd notes, 64th notes, and even 128th notes can appear in written music as trills or other musical ornaments.

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How to Read 3 Types of Time Signatures

The time signature is typically represented by two stacked numbers (like a fraction). The top number is the number of beats in a measure and the bottom number is the note value that represents one beat. For example, a song written in 4/4 time will have four quarter-note beats per measure, whereas a song written in 9/8 time will have nine eighth-note beats per measure. There are three basic types of time signatures: simple, compound, and complex.

  1. Simple: The most common types of simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 2/2. Sometimes the letter “C” (meaning common time) will be used in place of 4/4. Both C and 4/4 indicate that there are four quarter note beats in each measure. For 2/4 and 3/4, there are two and three quarter note beats per measure, respectively.
  2. Compound: Common compound time signatures include 9/4, 6/8, and 12/8. The beat of a piece of music with a compound time signature is broken into a three-part rhythm. In each of the cases above, quarter or eighth notes are combined in multiples of three.
  3. Complex: Complex time signatures are more common in music written after the nineteenth century. Complex time signatures don't follow typical duple or triple meters. Examples of complex time signatures include: 5/4, 11/4, and 7/8.

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7 Common Time Signatures

Though there are many time signatures that composers can use, below are the most common ones you'll see in Western music.

  1. 2/4: Two quarter-note beats per measure.
  2. 3/4: Three quarter-note beats per measure.
  3. 4/4: Four quarter-note beats per measure. Also known as common time and notated with a “C.”
  4. 2/2: Two half-note beats per measure. Also known as cut time is notated as a “C” with a vertical slash through it.
  5. 6/8: Six eighth-note beats per measure
  6. 9/8: Nine eighth-note beats per measure
  7. 12/8: Twelve eighth-note beats per measure

The first note of every bar or measure is called the downbeat. Every measure has strong and weak beats. In a time signature like 4/4, the first beat of every measure is the strongest beat, and the third beat is also a strong beat. Beats two and four are weak beats.

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