Theory Thursday | Part 3 | Time Signatures

Welcome back to Theory Thursday, the weekly article where we teach you a small tidbit about basic music theory. In this (exciting) edition we talk about time signatures.

Time signatures are very important when writing music. They determine the way a song feels, how many notes can fit in a bar and many other important things in music entirely rely on your use of time signatures.

For this segment we are going to be breaking it up into smaller parts and then bringing it all together for a recap.

For educational purposes we are only going to talk about the most common time signatures (2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 9/8)

The Top Number

Time signatures consist of two numbers sitting on top of each other, almost like a fraction in a math equation. They sit on the left hand side of the sheet music, located right beside the clef symbol.

A 4/4 time signature

The first number we are going to talk about is the top number. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats are in your bar. In your 4/4 time signature, there would be a total of 4 beats per bar. 9/8 time signature would have 9 beats per bar! Pretty simple isn’t it?

The Bottom Number

The bottom number of your time signature tells you what kind of note is worth one beat. This sounds more confusing than it is. If you have a 4/4 time signature, you can have 4 beats per bar. Each beat, is worth 1 quarter note. In a 3/4 time signature, you have 3 beats per bar, each beat is worth 1 quarter note. In 9/8 you have 9 beats per bar, with each beat being worth 1 eighth note.


Now that I’ve given you a basic understanding of how time signatures work, I’m going to give examples of different time signatures with a small breakdown of each one.

2/4 Time Signature

In a 2/4 time signature you have 2 beats per bar, and each beat is worth one quarter note. This means that the longest note you can use in a bar is a half note.

An example of 2/4 music

3/4 Time Signature

In a song written in 3/4 time, you would have 3 beats per bar, and the longest note you could use is 1 half note, this is because a whole note is worth 4 beats, and there are only 3 beats available to be used in a bar. Think of it like a bank. You only have 3 dollars in your account, so that means you can’t take out more than that. Time signatures work in the same way. You only have 3 beats, so you can only use notes that total up to 3 beats.

An example of 3/4 music.

4/4 Time Signature

Next up is your 4/4 time. This is the most common time signature, and is also known as common time and if you see a fancy C instead of numbers beside your clef, this means the music is in 4/4. Your bars contain 4 beats and each beat is worth one quarter note. The longest note you can use is…a whole note.

Example of music in 4/4 time.

6/8 Time

This is where time signatures get a little more complex. Because each beat is worth 1 eighth note, you can have 3 quarter notes, each being held for 2 beats, or 1 dotted half note, held for 6 beats. I will go into more about dotted and cut notes next week. The reason the eighth notes are grouped in 3’s instead of 2’s is because the time signature is a multiple of 3, and it helps the music look less cluttered.

Sample of music in 6/8 time.

9/8 Time Signature

You have 9 beats in your bar, and each beat is worth 1 eighth note. The functionality of this time signature is very similar to 3/4. You write your music in groups of 3’s and pretty much anything you write in 9/8 can also be played in 3/4, it just is easier to read it in 9/8. If you are doing a lot of triplets, or writing in a lot of smaller note values, using 9/8 or 12/8 is more ideal. (I will go further into triplets and more complex time signatures, like 12/8 another time)

Thanks for joining us on this journey into the wacky world of time signatures, if you enjoyed it please give us a follow on Facebook or consider donating to us on Patreon. Catch us again next Thursday at 10 am for another Theory Thursday.

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