Beginner Music Theory tutorials
8. Time signatures
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So like...what of those time signatures you kept blabbing on about for so long?

  1. Topics of discussion
  2. Time signatures explained
  3. Counting a measure

1. Topics of discussion

In this tutorial we are finally going to talk about time signatures, while also learning how to count a measure. So, let's have some fun.

2. Time signatures explained

A time signature is used to define how many beats there are in a bar/measure of a song. Let's take a look at an example from a previous tutorial:

Time Signature Sheet

As you can see, we have a 4/4 time signature in this one. The first number (the one on the top on the music sheet) represents the number of beats in one measure while the second one represents the note duration which constitutes a single beat in that measure.

In our case, the song is written in a time signature which consists of the equivalent of 4 quarter notes per bar and each measure has 4 beats. And as you can see, it's up to us to decide how we are going to fill those 4 beats. In our case, we have various examples, such as rests, whole notes, sixteenth notes and so on. Hence why I said equivalent.

Time signatures can either be read by using only the numbers (e.g. four-four) or by also specifying the note duration that constitutes a beat (e.g. four quarter notes). More often than not you'll hear musicians use the first variant though.

Other than 4/4, other common time signatures are 2/2, 3/4, 6/8 etc.

3. Counting a measure

Some of you with a keen eye for math might say something like: "wait a minute, 3/4 and 6/8 seem to be exactly the same thing, beat wise...what gives?". And while mathematically you are correct (3/4 is equal to 6/8), music wise they are very different. The difference lies in how many beats one must count when a song is written in 3/4 versus when a song is written in 6/8.

As we've learned before, the first number represents the number of beats in a measure which also means that that number is how many beats you are supposed to count. When a song is written in 3/4, you have to count a total of 3 beats (from 1 to 3). When a song is written in 6/8, you have to count to 6. And so on.

Counting a measure is the process in which a musician uses a certain counting technique in order to make sure that he is playing the notes on the beat they are meant to be played, not before or after. And based on the notes in a measure, there are several ways in which you can count a measure, which we will be looking at in a few moments.

Worth noting is that until one gets accustomed to the specifics of a song, counting out loud is actually very useful. Afterwards, musicians will develop the ability to keep a mental count. What I am saying is that there is no shame in counting out loud at first until you are comfortable.

So, let's take a look at the different ways in which you can count a measure:


Here's how this sounds like. Try and count along as the example plays in order to get accustomed to counting:

As you can see, as the duration gets shorter, we have to add some extra words in order to make sure we respect the beats per measure. For 32nd notes, since it may be difficult to grasp from the image, the counting goes something like 1 e and a and e and a 2 e and a and e and a 3 e and a and e and a 4 e and a and e and a. For 16th notes it's 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a.

Also worth noting is that for each measure we count to 4 and every time we say a number it's the beginning of a beat. And if you're wondering about rests, whenever you have a rest anywhere in your bar, the rules are the same for notes, so you'll be using the same counting way as if it was a note there.

And that about covers it for this tutorial. Next up, we'll discuss tempo. See you then.

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