Time Signatures

Equal segments of time are marked in musical notation with vertical lines called bar lines. These segments are called measures. Time signatures indicate the length and the way each measure is to be divided. The time signature, also known as the meter, is written at the beginning of the first system. It consist of two numbers one above the other.

 The top number answers the question: "How many?" The bottom number answers the question: "Of what?"

For example, 4/4 time means that there will be the equivalent of four quarter notes in each measure. Often 4/4 is written with a C which stands for common time.

The bottom number of the time signature indicates a rhythmic value. Below are rhythmic values and the numbers that indicate them in a time signature.

4

2

 

 

 

8

16

A measure of 3/4 would have the equivalent of three quarter notes. A measure of 6/8 would have the equivalent of six eighth notes.

Time Signatures and the Beat

What is the difference between 4/4 common time and 2/2 cut time? In either case there are four quarter per measure because a half note equals two quarter notes. However, there is a difference in the way that music would be performed in 4/4 as compared to 2/2. In addition to indicating the size and the division of a measure, the time signature can also imply where the pulse is played and how pulses are grouped.

4/4 time implies that there are four pulses per measure. The downbeat is the first pulse of the measure and it may get a slight additional stress or accent in performance. This yields a grouping or pattern of four pulses. The third pulse or beat also may get an additional stress but not as much as the downbeat. The pattern might look something like this:

4

 

4

 

1

2

3

4

The first and the third beat are played with more stress.

2/2 implies a two pulse pattern - there are two half notes per measure. It might look something like this:

2

 

2

 

1

2

This example shows that there is another dimension to what a time signature may indicate. It may indicate how to use emphasis to group the pulse and beats. In performance there are often many ways to read and play the same notation. There are things that music notation cannot convey that experienced performers interpret in their own personal and musical way. For example, a piece of music written in 4/4 time may not have a regular recurring downbeat at all. However, it is very important for students to learn to feel the pulse and play with a feeling of downbeat.

How many beats are in a measure of 6/8 time? We know that there are six eighth notes worth of time per measure. Often the eighth notes are played in two groups of three eighth notes. There are two pulses per measure and each pulse is divided into three parts.

6

 

8

 

1

2