Whether or not you read music, knowing what a time signature is and differentiating between different time signatures is hugely important when you’re learning and writing songs.
Have you ever been tapping along to a song and been thrown off? You’re groovin’ out on 2 & 4 and suddenly your foot is tapping in a different spot? You’ve either messed up, the music shifted into another time signature or tempo, or the song had a different time signature from the very start without your prior knowledge.
Here's what you need to know to better understand what time signatures are, and how they work.
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What Is A Time Signature?
Basically, a time signature dictates the meter of a piece of music. By meter, I mean how you count it. A song with a time signature of 4/4 has four beats in a measure, and is counted like this: 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4, etc.
By far, 4/4 is the most common time signature you’ll run into. In fact, 4/4 is so common that it is often called common time. Sometimes, when you’re reading sheet music, it will simply have a “C” in place of a 4/4 marking because of how often it is used.
What a time signature does is let you know how to count a piece of music. When you’re learning a song by ear, it’s essential to consider the time signature (or meter) of the song.
Time signatures are represented by a number over another number, for example, 4/4. The top top number indicates how many beats there are in a measure, and the bottom number indicates whether the beats are quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes, whole notes, etc.
What Are The Most Common Time Signatures? With Examples!
Now that you have at least a basic understanding of what time signatures are, it's time to explore the most common ones. These examples will offer additional insights, so even if you're a bit confused right now, it will start to make sense after having a listen to the following songs.
Common Time (4/4)
As previously stated, 4/4, or common time, is the most common time signature.
Each measure has four beats. In popular music, the second and fourth beats (the backbeat) are accented, and that is typically what you’ll be clapping along to as well.
For a great example of 4/4, listen to pretty much every song on the radio, or this Taylor Swift song:
Waltz Time (3/4)
3/4 time is the second most common meter. It dates way, way back musically, and gets its name from Waltz songs played in the days before DJs and rock bands.
Waltz time has 3 beats per measure. Traditionally, the first beat (the downbeat) is the accented beat and the other two beats are not (these are called upbeats).
However, in popular music, country music especially, it’s common to have accents on the second or third beat as well.
There are many pop songs in 3/4, so I’ll show you a few different styles of music in waltz time.
“My First Song” by Jay-Z is actually a traditional Viennese style waltz. Obviously, it’s been sampled and doesn’t sound anything like what the Viennese would have danced to, but it’s still a great example.
“Drift Off To Dream” by Travis Tritt is a classic country waltz. It’s actually very similar to the Jay-Z song in the way it’s felt and played, but obviously the genres are completely different (well, they aren't without some similarities!).
March Time (2/4)
March time is less common in pop music, but was very common when people were writing – well – marches.
Basically, march time is 4/4 time cut in half. There’s 2 beats per measure. Typically, the first beat is accented.
2/4 is more commonly used in pop music as an extra measure or a way to accommodate a melody that doesn’t fit into standard 4/4 time. So a song that's in 4/4 time can temporarily shift in and out of 2/4 time. More examples of that later.
6/8 time has similarities to 3/4 time in the sense that it’s based around a 3 beat structure instead of a 4 beat structure.
You may have noticed that 6/8 time is not represented by quarter notes. Instead, it’s made up of eighth notes. Six of them to be precise.
It usually counted like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5 6, with accents on 1 & 4. Usually, beat 1 is a stronger accent than beat 4, thus the need for a 6/8 time signature as opposed to a 3/4 time signature.
“We Are The Champions” is a well-known song in 6/8. It’s very easy to hear this: the kick is on beat one and the snare is on beat four. Kick 2 3 Snare 5 6, and so on.
There are a ton of songs in 6/8 in popular music, it was especially popular in the 60s. You can hear an example in this Beach Boys song:
Mixing Time Signatures & Odd Time
That’s pretty much all of the most common meters. However, you’ll sometimes run into a song that changes time signatures between sections or even just within a phrase. And sometimes songs will be in straight up weird meters!
One of the most common “odd” meters is 5/4. Just like it sounds, 5/4 is 5 quarter note beats per measure. My favorite example of 5/4 in a popular song is the Mission: Impossible theme music:
Try counting along, and you’ll find yourself going 1 2 3 4 5 – weird, right?
After 5/4 comes 7/8. 7/8 time is simply 7 eighth note beats making up a measure. One of the most popular songs in 7/8 is “Money” by Pink Floyd.
In addition to the ones I've already covered, there are all sorts of unusual time signatures: 9/8, 11/8, 12/8, 13/8, etc. But you won't hear these too often except in progressive rock and other odd genres (Dream Theater, Rush, etc.).
The other phenomena you might notice is an odd measure of 2 or 3 sneaking their way into a song that is otherwise in 4/4. A famous example of this is “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. Check it out:
This song has three measure of 4/4, followed by a measure of 2/4, and then two measures of 4/4, and then the pattern repeats. It looking like this:
4/4 – 4/4 – 4/4 – 2/4 – 4/4 – 4/4 – repeated throughout the entire song.
Don’t get thrown off when you can’t immediately identify a time signature! Just start counting, and work it out.
Have you ever written anything in an unusual time signature? Post a link in the comments!