Music is naturally rhythmic and the notation has to show that somehow. So the staff is divided into bars, or measures, which represent a segment of time corresponding to a specific number of beats. This is called a Time Signature.
Vertical lines called bar lines divide the staff into bars, or measures. The Time Signature tells us how many beats there are in each bar. It is written at the beginning of a piece of music and contains two numbers, one above the other, and looks a little like a fraction. The top number tells you the number of beats in the bar, and the bottom number tells you what the beat is measured in, such as half, quarter or eighth notes.
The diagram below shows a time signature of 4/4 time. It’s the most common time signature and for that reason is often called “common time”. It also shows two bars, or measures separated by bar lines. The top number of the time signature indicates that there are four beats and the bottom number indicates that each beat lasts a quarter note. The emphasis is on the first beat of the bar – ONE-two-three-four-ONE-two-three-four.
Listen to how a 4/4 beat sounds here.
There are more songs and tunes written in 4/4 time than any other time signature. The Beatles “Let It Be” is an example of 4/4 time – here’s a brief extract with the beats counted along.
You may sometimes see 4/4 time represented with a “C” instead of the numbers – this means common time.
Listen to how a 3/4 time signature sounds here. With the emphasis on the first beat 3/4 time has a waltzy feel to it.
“Moon River”, written by Henry Mancini and covered by dozens of artists from Frank Sinatra to Pixie Lott, is a good example. Here’s a brief snippet so you can hear the beat and count along.
Now 6/8 time is similar to 3/4 time but there are six eighth note beats which has a different feel to it.
Listen to how a 6/8 time signature sounds here. The emphasis is on the first beat of the bar – ONE-two-three-four-five-six-ONE-two-three-four-five-six.
“The House of The Rising Sun” by The Animals is a good example. Here’s another short extract.
Here are a couple of less common time signatures – 12/8 time which has twelve quarter beats per measure (which is quite difficult to count out loud!)
Smoky Robinson’s ” You’ve Really Got A Hold on Me” may help you to count the beats.
And here’s some rarer ones like 5/4 time (think Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”) which has five quarter beats per measure
Introduction to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.
and 7/4 time (e.g “Money” by Pink Floyd) which has seven quarter beats per measure
Money by Pink Floyd – first few bars.
I hope the examples help you to understand time signatures a little better. The good news is that tapping a foot can help you recognise the beat, which is easier than counting out loud – especially for 12/8 time!
Having looked at note duration and time signatures it’s worth mentioning tempo here.
Note durations are relative to each other, such as a half note lasts twice as long as a quarter note. The actual amount of time each note will last depends on the tempo.
The tempo is measured in beats per second, or BPM. Some written music may suggest a tempo, and if you already know the piece of music you may have a good idea what speed to play it.
You can play as quickly or as slowly as you like. It’s always good to start practising a piece at a slow pace and build up to the required speed as you improve. Something played slowly but well, without mistakes, always sounds better than something played quickly but with many duff notes!
- The Time Signature tells us how many beats in a bar and how long the beats last
- The top number in a time signature shows how many beats there are in a bar
- The bottom number in a time signature shows the duration of the beats
- Most songs are written in 4/4 time which is also called common time
- 3/4 time sounds waltzy
- 5/4 time and 7/4 time are unusual time signatures but have an interesting feel
- Tempo is the speed, or pace, of the music and is measured in beats per minute
- Practise a piece slowly to begin with and then build up speed
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