Understanding Time Signatures: Common Time Signatures in Music

Understanding time signatures is yet another important part of reading music. Regardless of your skill level or instrument time signatures are key to determining how the rhythm should be read. Although the time signature is simply two numbers at the beginning of a piece of music, it is one of the most important pieces of information you will need to decipher in order to play the music properly.

Todays post will cover:

  • The purpose of the time signature
  • What the numbers means
  • Most common Time signatures and how to apply them to the music

Why Understanding Time Signatures is Important

Understanding time signatures is extremely important when it comes to reading music on any instrument at any skill level. It provides the player with key information regarding how the rhythm should be read.

The time signature may simply look like two numbers, but these two numbers provides a lot of important information. After a short study of the time signature a player can gather the following information:

  • How many beats are in the bar.
  • The type of note that will get a full beat.
  • The feel of the music

What Does the Numbers Mean?

If you are beginning to read music for the first time you may asking:

“what do these numbers mean?”

It is actually quite easy to read the time signature if you have a good understanding of what each number represents. The beauty of time signatures is the meaning of these numbers never changes. It doesn’t matter what the genre or instrument is, these numbers will always indicate the same thing.

The time signature will always appear as a fraction at the beginning of the music. It is always located right next to the clef (treble or bass) and key signature (a topic for anther day).

Time Signature

You will see in the example above that there are two 4’s placed on top of each other. Each number gives specific information. The number on top of the fraction tells the musician how many beats are in a bar or measure while the number on the bottom tells the musician what type of notes gets the beat.

Thus the example above tells us that their are 4 beats in a bar and that the quarter (1/4) note is equal to one beat. this particular time signature is known as common time because it is the most widely used time signature. Quite often the composer will not write 4/4. They will actually place a C at the beginning of the piece to provide the same information. See the photo below.

common time

It would be really easy if the this was the only time signature we needed to know but there are actually many more time signatures. There are many time signatures that are quite common while others may appear less frequently. As long as we know what the 2 numbers means we can gather the appropriate information to count and play the music properly.

The Most Popular Time Signatures

Aside from 4/4 or common time there are several other time signatures that all musicians will encounter, regardless of their skill level. Overtime, we no longer need to think when we see the time signature. We just automatically know what it means and apply that information to the music without hesitation.

Time Signatures Based on The Quarter (1/2) Note

Time signatures that give the quarter one beat is perhaps the most commonly encountered time signatures. After all the basic values we learn in the beginning is based on giving the quarter note 1 beat. The only thing that changes in these time signatures is the number of beats in a bar.

2/4 Time

You will see in the photo to the left that the top number is a 2. This means that there are 2 beats in a bar or measure. Since the quarter noter gets the beat (we know this because the bottom number is a 4) there can be a maximum of 2 quarter notes in each bar or measure.

3/4 Time Signature

The time signature in the photo to the right has a 3 as the top number. This tells us there are 3 beats per bar/measure. Thus there can be a maximum of 3 quarter notes per bar/measure.


Although these are the most common time signatures that give the quarter note 1 beat, there are many others used in music. The top number can be any value. For example, if the top number was a 5, we would know that there are 5 beats in each bar with the quarter note equalling one full beat.

Time Signatures Based on The Eighth Note

Although in the beginning we will learn that the quarter note is equal to one beat, it is quickly discovered that this is not always the case. It is very common to find time signatures in which the eighth note is given a full beat.

**When reading time signatures based on the eighth note it is important to become familiar with the dotted quarter note. Adding a dote to any rhythmic value will add one half of its value to the note. Thus when a quarter note is followed by a dot 1/2 of its value will be added. This is the same as adding an eighth note. You can see a dotted quarter note in the example for 2/4 time above.**

These time signatures are read in the same fashion but now we must give each eighth note a beat. Below you will find some of the most common time signatures based on the eighth note.

3/8 timeIn the example to the left the time signature indicates that there are 3 beats in a bar/measure with the eighth note equaling one beat. There can be a maximum of 3 eighth notes or one dotted quarter note per bar/measure.

6/8 TimeThe time signature in the photo to the right shows a number 6 on the top. Thus there are 6 beats per bar/measure with the eighth note getting the beat.

You will notice the that the tempo marking is based on the dotted quarter note rather then the eighth note. This is because it is more common to divide the eighth notes into group of three and give each group the “big beat.” You will gain a better understanding of the dotted quarter note as you play more pieces written in these time signatures. In the example above there can be 2 dotted quarter notes in each bar or measure.

9/8 timeIn this photo the time signature indicates that there are 9 beats in a measure. Thus there can be a maximum of 9 eighth notes or 3 dotted quarter notes.





12/8 time

The final time signature that I will cover in this section shows that there are 12 beats in a bar/measure. Thus there can be 12 eighth notes or 4 dotted quarter notes per bar/measure.


Again, the number on the top can be almost any number, but you may have noticed that the number of beats per bar/measure in time signatures based on the eighth note are usually multiples of 3.

Many More Time Signatures to Explore

There are many other time signatures that we could explore but the ones mentioned above are the mostly widely used time signatures. They will be encountered within the music of most beginner players.

Time signatures that give the half note and sixteenth note are also possible, but if you have a good understanding of what the numbers mean you will have little trouble figuring out what each time signature is telling you.

Can you guess what the bottom would be for a time signature that gives the half note or sixteenth note the beat?

If you guessed that the number on the bottom for the half note is 2 and the sixteenth note is 16 then you are well on your way to mastering time signatures.

Understanding Time Signatures: Now You Got It!

The information in this post is pretty much everything you need to know to start reading the time signature. Is there something I missed or something you may want to know more about? If so please leave a comment below. stay tuned for the next post for reading music for beginners which will focus on counting music in the different time signatures mentioned above.



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