Time signatures are a very important part of reading and writing music. They tell us everything we need to know about how to count and group notes and which beats we should put emphasis on.

In this guide, we’re going to learn all about time signatures and how to use them in music theory.

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What is a Time Signature?

A time signature is made up of two numbers, one on top of the other and looks a bit like a fraction.

We use time signatures to tell musicians how to group musical notes.

For example, should we group them in beats of two, three, four, or something else?

Here are some examples of what a time signature looks like:

*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*

Just remember that every single bar should always add up to the correct number of beats indicated in the time signature.

Regular Time Signatures

There are a few different ways to categorize time signatures, the main two are regular (or common) and irregular time signatures.

A regular time signature is defined by having a top number that is divisible by two, three, or four.

That means that the number of beats in a bar is going to be two, three, or four.

For example, the time signature 3/4 has three crotchet beats in a bar and so is a regular time signature because three can be divided by three.

Or another example would be the time signature 12/8 which has four dotted crotchet beats and so is divisible by two, three, or four.

But 5/8 which has five quaver beats in a bar has a top number five which can’t be divided by two, three, or four and so is an irregular time signature (more about those soon).

Duple, triple and quadruple time

We can further categorize regular time signatures into three more groups:

Duple timeTriple timeQuadruple time

In the US, these are sometimes referred to as meter instead – Duple meter, triple meter, etc.

These are referring to whether a regular time signature can be divided by two, three, or four.

Duple timeis where we will have two main beats in a bar. An example of this would be 2/4 which has two crotchet beats in a bar or 2/2 which has two minim beats in a bar.

Triple time is where we have three main beats in a bar. An example of this would be 3/4 which has three crotchet beats in a bar or 3/8 which has three quaver beats in a bar.

Quadruple timeis where we have four main beats in a bar. An example of this would be 4/4 which has four crotchet beats in a bar or 4/2 which has four minim beats in a bar.

Simple and Compound Time Signatures

Another way to group time signatures is into either simple or compound. There is an easy way to remember the difference:

A simple time signature has a top number that’s either a 2, 3, or 4. 

A compound time signature has a top number that’s either a 6, 9, or 12.

To get a better idea of how these work I’ve put together sometime signature charts to download over here.

To Sum up

Time signatures are an absolutely essential thing to know if you want to learn about music theory.

Whether you’re just a beginner using the basic meters like 3/4 and 4/4 or some more complex odd and irregular time signatures like 7/8 and 7/4 it’s important to know what they mean and how to play them.

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If you have any questions about anything covered in this post though just comment below and I’ll get back to you.