Understanding time signitures 

In music we use time signatures to indicate how many beats fit within a bar.

Beat can be defined as the pulse of a peice of music. To get the beat of 4/4 simply tap your leg on every number; 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4. As you do this, put emphasis on your 1 beat, making the sound slightly louder.


The time signature 4/4; also known as common time and may be written as ‘C’ at the beginning of a stave, shows us that there are 4 crotchet/quarter beats per bar.

Top number: number of beats per measure

Bottom number: length of the beat

Note: a time signature in 4/4 does not mean each measurement only has four notes. As long as the fractions add to the same numerator(top number); 2 semi breves (half notes), 8 quaver notes, rests etc.


If we change the bottom number, we change the length of the beat. For example, if we used 2 as our denominator, our beat would be a Semibreve (half note). We could have a rest on the 2 and 4 beat, or perhaps use some sustain, adding emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beat.
Their are 2 types of time signatures;

Simple: The denominator can be divided into two notes. These time signatures would include; 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 3/2, 2/8 etc.

Compound: The denominator can be divided into three. Let’s use the time signature 6/8 for example: since the denominator is 8, our note duration would be quaver notes (eighth notes) and our measure would add up to the length of 6 quaver notes. You would play this as 2 groups of 3 (1,2,3,1,2,3). If you were to play it as 3 groups of 2 instead, you would have a simple time signature as you would count it as 1,2,1,2,1,2

After you determine which type of time signature a piece of music is played in, you can further define it using the terms; Duple, triple and quadruple. These refer to the number of beats within a measure. Using our example of 6/8 again, if we were to play it as 2 groups of 3 (1,2,3,1,2,3) our time signature would be classed as triple compound. If we counted in 3 groups of 2 (1,2,1,2,1,2) our time signature would be classed as simple duple.

Duple: 2 Beats per measure

Triple: 3 Beats per measure

Quadruple: 4 Beats per measure.


Compound Duple time signatures is any time signature with a 6 as the numerator. This includes 6/2, 6/4, 6/8, 6/16 etc.

Compound Triple time signatures will have a 9 as the numerator. This includes 9/4, 9/8, 9/16 etc.

Compound Quadruple time signatures will have a 12 as the numerator. This includes 12/4, 12/8, 12/16 etc.

Let’s analyse the time signature 12/8 to get a better understanding. We would have 12 quaver notes across the measure. We would pair these notes in groups of 3, played over 4 beats (3 x 4 = 12). Since we pair the notes in 3, our time signature is compound, and since it has 4 beats, the measure is Quadruple.


That sums up the basic’s on time signatures. Before we end this lesson, we are going to quickly go through why you should learn how to understand time signatures and how they will help you improve on your instrument.

  1. You will be on your way to learning how to read sheet music.
  2. After training, you will be able to read rhythm.
  3. You will be able to write your own music in ways other musicians will understand.

here is several reasons as to why you should learn time signatures, but how to implement them to your own playing and how will it improve your skill on your given instrument?

First, practice playing in different times. set a metronome to 3/4, 7/8 or whatever you feel like. play around and get a feel for the beat. As you start to feel more comfortable, change the note duration (start playing eighth notes instead of quarter notes, use rests etc).

By doing this you will figure out new rhythms on your own!


Off beats:

An unaccented beat within a bar. Tap your leg in 4/4 counting the beat out loud as you go. In between each number say ‘and – 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.. the term and fills the gap in between the two beats. If you were to implement this within a piece of music, you might play a Quaver on the off beat; or perhaps a rest, giving emphasis on the beat you come back in to.

Ways to count off beats:

  • 1 and 2 and 3 and 4
  • 1 e and 2 e and 3 e and 4 e and
  • 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a

By counting with the word ‘and’ between each beat, you will feel 1 off beat in between every beat.

By counting with ‘e and’ you will feel 2 off beats in between every beat.

By counting with ‘e and a’ you will feel 3 off beats in between every beat.

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