If not for time signatures, music would go on forever like a sentence with no punctuation. As well as notes and beats, we use time signatures to organise and measure the music we write. Time signatures allow us to divide music into phrases and break down what would be a complex series of notes. Think of time signatures as the blue print design of a house made of music.

That’s all well and good, but understanding time signatures can certainly feel daunting. I remember when I first got into music and didn’t care for time signatures… or music theory in general, for that matter.

But, let me tell you, only when I embraced music theory did I begin to write more interesting (and fun) music.

So, are you ready for your creative and logical brains to merge into one super music factory super brain? Don’t worry, we’re putting it in a super-easy way to understand.

What Are Time Signatures?

Time signatures are what give the music we know and love its beat. The most common time signature is 4/4. In dance music, the term “Four on the Floor” refers to the 4/4 time signature, which is used in almost all electronic dance music. “4/4” means four beats per bar, and it’s the best time signature to dance to because it isn’t complicated. However, “four beats per bar” is only half the story, but we’ll come back to that.

There are a plethora of other time signatures that are worth having in your arsenal, as they’ll allow you to get imaginative down to the very core of your music creation process. With expertise in more than one time signature, you’ll be able to write music in a variety of styles and your peers will HAVE to take their hats off to you.

In sheet music, a time signature is always found at the very beginning of a piece. It’s located after the clef, of which there are two types (one for bass notes and one for treble notes) and the key signature (which we’ll cover in our next article).

Below, you can see a treble clef, two #’s and two 4’s stacked on top of one another. The two #’s are the key signature (which you can ignore for now), while the two 4’s on top of one another represent the 4/4 time signature.

The time signature of Cotton Eye Joe, Source: Dummies

How to Read Time Signatures

Now, let’s go back to that half story we told about “four beats per bar”.

The amount of beats per bar is always represented by the top number in a time signature. As with 4/4 where there are 4 beats per par, a time signature of 2/4 means that there are a total of two bets per par.

But there is a second element. And that, of course, is the bottom number.

The bottom number always represents the type of beat per par. The three most common types of beats are half beats, quarter beats and eighth beats.

Bottom numberNote value
2Half beat/note (minim)
4Quarter beat/note (crotchet)
8Eighth beat/note (quaver)
A table representing the three common notes found in a time signature
  • A 4/4 time signature = 4 beats per bar and one quarter note gets one beat.
  • A 2/4 time signature = 2 beats per bar and a quarter note gets one beat.
  • A 2/2 time signature = 2 beats per bar and a half note gets one beat.

To add further confusion to the bag, the beats inside any time signature can be broken down into faster notes. For example, a quarter note can be broken down into two eight notes and still respect the time signature.

This is because there are two eights in a quarter, there are two quarters in a half, and there are two halves in a whole. For the record, a whole is one note/beat. If you want to impress your friends at a dinner party, a whole note is called a semibreve.

What Are the Different Time Signatures in Music?

Now that we’ve dissected what the two numbers each represent and how there is still room to experiment within the boundaries of a time signature, let’s talk them time signatures themselves.

There are actually two types of time signatures, but we’re only going to talk about simple time signatures. Yes, that’s really what they’re called…

Our old friend, the 4/4 time signature, is a simple time signature. As is its cousin the 2/2/ time signature, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

4/4 Time Signature

Being the most common time signature, 4/4 is often referred to as Common Time but, instead of 4/4 at the start of a piece, is often written as “C” in sheet music. What a poem.

As we discussed, there are four beats per bar and a quarter note is worth one beat. That whole note we mentioned? Well, it takes up all four beats in 4/4.

2/2 Time Signature

In contrast to Common Time, 2/2 is often written as “Cut Time”. If you hadn’t noticed, 2/2 is exactly half of 4/4. Nice!

Each bar has two beats, and a half note is worth one beat. 2/2 and 4/4 sound very similar, but 2/2 has a stronger accent on what would be the third beat in 4/4. In 2/2, this third beat is the second half note.

2/4 Time Signature

Often used for marches, 2/4 is a common time signature where each bar has two beats and a quarter note is worth one beat.

3/4 Time Signature

After 4/4 and 2/4, 3/4 is the most used time signature.  It has three beats per bar and four quarter beats make a whole beat. It was made popular in Vienna by the great Johann Strauss II with its lilting waltz time.

3/8 Time Signature

3/8 is pretty much the same as 3/4, but the difference is that quaver (8th) notes are worth a whole beat rather than a quarter note.

Irregular Time Signatures

Irregular time signatures are time signatures that can not be divided evenly into groups of two or three like time signatures with 2, 3, 4, or 6 as the top number. This makes them odd time signatures.

5/4 Time Signature

5/4 is the most popular odd time signature precisely because of its irregularity. It doesn’t fit into an easy to understand rhythm, so it’s a very popular time signature in jazz!   

It’s usually counted in a group of three-quarter notes followed by two groups of eight notes, or vice versa. These two groups feature two eighth notes each, and have the same value as 2 quarter notes – making five quarter notes per bar!

7/4 and 7/8 Time Signatures

7/4 and 7/8 are used quite a lot and can be counted in different ways. Most often, they are counted with a group of four beats followed by a group of three beats. 

You could get the same effect by writing a measure of 4/4 followed by a measure of 3/4, but it is easier for a musician reading the music notation if the time signature changes as little as possible.

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