How to Read Time Signatures (with guitar tab exercises)

In this lesson I will show you how to understand and read time signatures. You will also be given musical examples to play on the guitar to get the feel of different time signatures in music.

What are time signatures?

If you look at the beginning of any piece of music, next to the treble clef you will find the key signature (a group of sharps or flats, unless you’re in the keys of C major or A minor which don’t have any) followed by the time signature, two numbers on top of each other.

The time signature tells us two things about the music that follows:

The top number tells us how many beats there are in a measure (or bar, defined by the vertical bar lines within the music) while the bottom number tells us which note takes the beat.

For instance if the bottom number is 4 the quarter note (crotchet) takes the beat. Thus if the number at the top is also 4 we have 4 quarter notes in each bar, or their equivalent.

And if the number at the top is 3 we have 3 quarter notes or their equivalent in each bar.

How to read time signatures

We have already determined that the number at the top tells us how many beats there are in each measure, but how do we read the number at the bottom?

This is easy.

A quarter note is called as such because it is 1/4th of a whole note (semibreve). Thus the bottom number is 4 when it takes the beat.  

A half note (minim) is 1/2 of a full note, thus when the bottom number is 2, a half note takes the beat.

The same applies to eight (quaver) and sixteenth (semiquaver) notes. If the bottom number is 8 we’re counting in eight notes and if it’s 16 we’re counting in sixteenth notes.  

The following is the pyramid of notes to show you how their values are subdivided.

Thus, if the bottom number is:

1 the whole note (semibreve) takes the beat. This is very uncommon.

2 the half note (minim) takes the beat.

4 the quarter note (crotchet) takes the beat. This is the most common.

8 the eight note (quaver) takes the beat.

16 the sixteenth note (semiquaver) takes the beat. 

A few examples to demonstrate this:

3/2 = 3 half notes in each bar

2/4 = 2 quarter notes in each bar

6/8 = 6 eight notes in each bar

Reading music in different time signatures

The above is a basic explanation of how to read the numbers in a time signature.

Next we’re going to learn how to read music in different time signatures but first you need to understand the concept of “meter”.

The time signature deals with the number of beats and their quality in each measure, while meter deals with how the notes are grouped together in music.

Each time signature implies a meter which can be classified as simple, compound or complex.

As well as duple, triple and quadruple.

If all this is confusing you, don’t worry, things should become clearer as we delve deeper into each of the two levels of classifying meter in time signatures.

First level of classification: Simple, compound, or complex.

This level of classification is concerned with how the beat indicated by the time signature is subdivided.

Simple time

In simple time, each main beat can be divided in two equal parts.

In simple time, the bottom number of the time signature is equal to the type of note corresponding to a single beat.

Thus, if the bottom number is 4, the main beat will be a quarter note. If the bottom number is 2, the main beat will be a half note, etc.

In simple time the top number is always 2, 3 or 4.

Let’s get into some examples of simple time.

4/4 is the most common time signature. It is in fact called common time and is at times represented by the symbol C instead of numbers.

The following example is a short piece of music written in a 4/4 time signature.

Learn it and then play it with a metronome to get the feel of playing in 4/4 time. If you find the example too fast for your present level of playing, feel free to reduce the tempo as much as necessary.

Next we’re going to explore the 3/4 time signature.

While still in simple time, a 3/4 time signature changes the way the beats are accented.

The first beat is accented, and the second and third are weak.

As you learn this piece of music in 3/4 time, notice how this is reflected in the music. 

Note: Syncopation means accenting beats that would otherwise be weak. While this is very common in music, I’m avoiding it in these examples so that you get the feel of each time signature better.

2/2 time is also commonly used and is sometimes referred to as cut time, marked by the symbol C with a vertical line cutting through it.

Here, the half note takes the beat, and there are two beats in each bar.

While playing the following example, realize that you’re playing the same number of notes as you did in a 4/4 time signature in each bar, but you’re counting a beat every half note, not every quarter note.

Other commonly used simple time signatures that we haven’t explored here include 2/4 and 3/2 time signatures. 

If you have understood the principles above it should be easy to play in these time signatures.

Compound time

In compound time each main beat can be divided into three equal parts.

In simple time the top number tells us how many main beats there are in a measure.

In compound time the top number tells how many divisions of the beat there are in a measure, rather than the number of main beats.

In compound time the top number is always 6, 9 or 12 and the bottom number is usually eight, sometimes four.

Let’s take 6/8 for example. We do have 6 eight notes in a bar however the main beats are two dotted quarter notes. They only become 6 eight notes when each dotted quarter note is divided into 3.

Thus, rather than read as 1-2-3-4-5-6, the beat is read as 1 – 2- 3 – 1 – 2- 3, the number in bold representing the accented main beat and the other numbers the subdivisions of the beat.

Notice how this is also reflected in the music.

9/8 and 12/8 time signatures work on the same principle. 

In 9/8 time you have 3 main beats of a dotted quarter note each subdivided into three eight notes. 

In 12/8 time you have 4 main beats of a dotted quarter note subdivided into three eight notes.

While in simple time the main beat is never a dotted note, in compound time the main beat is always a dotted note.

We’ll be revisiting these time signatures again in the other level of classification – duple, triple or quadruple meter.

Complex time

A complex time signature (also called odd or irregular) can be any other combination that doesn’t organize beats solely divided by two (simple time), or by three (compound time).

The most common complex time signatures use a combination of both simple and compound time.

For instance in 5/4 the first three quarter notes are grouped together (as in compound time) and the last two together (as in simple time).

This makes the beat sound 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 as in the guitar riff below.

The next example is in 7/8. The first three eight notes are grouped in the first beat (compound time) and the following four eight notes are grouped in two beats (both simple time) sounding like this: 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 2. 

Note: In complex time, the order of the accented notes can vary. For instance, 7/8 time can also be accented as: 1 -2 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 3, or, 1 -2 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2

Second level of classification: Duple, triple or quadruple

The second level of classification of meter in a given time signature regards how many main beats there are in each bar.

In duple meter there are two main beats in each bar:

2/4 – 2 quarter note beats (simple duple)

2/2 = 2 half note beats (simple duple)

6/8 = 2 dotter quarter note beats (compound duple)

In triple meter we have three main beats in each bar:

3/2 = 3 half note beats (simple triple)

3/4 = 3 quarter note beats (simple triple)

9/8 = 3 dotted quarter note beats (compound triple)

In quadruple meter there are four main beats in each bar: 

4/4 = 4 quarter note beats (simple quadruple)

4/2 = 4 half note beats (simple quadruple)

12/8 = 4 dotted quarter note beats (compound quadruple)

Complex meters are not usually classified as duple, triple or quadruple since the beats are not equal.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

The above lesson is meant to give you an overview of the most common time signatures and how to play music on the guitar in some of them.

If you want to take the study of time signatures further I suggest that you learn pieces of music in different time signatures, as well as use them to write music

If you want to go even further (especially if you love experimental genres of music like progressive rock) you can also experiment with wilder time signatures (11/8 or 23/16), as well as changing meters within the same piece of music.

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