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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Online Theory Exams Grades 1-5:
16th March 2021
Next UK Trinity Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 1-8:
Sat 8th May 2021

Grade 4 Music Theory Lesson 8: Time Signatures

If you've already studied time signatures for grade 3 music theory, you'll be pleased to know that there is not much very new at grade 4! This lesson will just review what you should already know - if anything seems new or tricky, just take a look at the grade 3 lesson for a more in depth explanation!


Remember, the top number tells you how many notes to count in each bar, and the bottom number tells you what type of note to count.

Bottom numbers mean: 2=minim (half note), 4=crotchet (quarter note), 8=quaver (eighth note).

So the time signature 4/2 means "count four minims (half notes) per bar".


Simple or Compound

Simple time signatures have an undotted note as the main beat, and each beat is sub-divided into 2. Simple time signatures have 2, 3 or 4 as the top number.

Compound time signatures have a dotted note as the main beat, and each beat is sub-divided into 3. Compound time signatures have 6, 9 or 12 as the top number.


Duple, Triple or Quadruple

Time signatures show you how many beats per bar there (which is not always the same as how many notes).

All the time signatures you need to know at this grade have two, three or four main beats per bar.

Notice that no time signature shows that there are six beats or nine beats per bar! When a time signature has 6, 9 and 12 as the top number, you need to divide this number by 3 to work out how many beats per bar there are.


If there are 2 main beats per bar, the time signature is DUPLE: 2/2, 2/4, 6/4 and 6/8 are duple time signatures. The top number is always 2 or 6.

If there are 3 main beats per bar, the time signature is TRIPLE: 3/2, 3/4, 3/8 and 9/8 are triple time signatures. The top number is always 3 or 9.

If there are 4 main beats per bar, the time signature is QUADRUPLE: 4/2, 4/4, 4/8 and 12/8 are quadruple time signatures. The top number is always 4 or 12.


Grouping Notes and Rests

When notes have to be grouped together with beams, or rests have to be added, you need to be careful about how you do it. You need to know whether the time signature is duple, triple or quadruple, then use notes, rests and beamed groups which make those beats easy to see.

This means that long note/rest values should fall on the beat, and not between the main beats. 

A break in a group of beamed notes will show where the new beat starts too.


Look at these two bars, both of which contain just 1 note:

3 4 6 8

How should you fill up the bar with rests? 

In the first case, the time signature is 3/4. This is triple time with a crotchet (quarter note) beat. So the first beat is already complete. We can just add 2 rests, one for each of the other two beats.

rests in 3 4


In the second case, 6/8 is duple time with a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) beat.  This means the first beat isn't finished yet, and we'll need to add a quaver (eighth note), to complete the first beat. Then we add a dotted crotchet rest for the second beat.

rests in 6 8


When you beam notes together, the same rule applies - beam the notes together to make the complete beats easy to see. Look at these 2 examples, which contain the same note values but in different time signatures:

beaming 3/4 6/8


As 6/8 is duple time, we need to beam the notes into two groups, so that we create TWO dotted beats per bar:

beaming 6 8

but 3/4 is triple time, we need to have THREE undotted beats per bar, so we create three groups:

beaming 3 4


New Time Signatures

The new time signatures for grade 4 are as follows:


4/8 - four quavers (eighth notes) per bar, simple quadruple time,

9/4 - three dotted minims (half notes) per bar, compound triple time and

6/4 - 2 dotted minims (half notes) per bar, compound duple time.


Some people find it tricky to spot the difference between 3/2 and 6/4. This is because the beats are longer notes and therefore beams are not so often seen (as in 3/4 and 6/8) to help tell the difference.

Remember that 3/2 is triple time - 3=simple triple (always!). And 6/4 is compound time (6=compound duple, always!)

If you see three minims (half notes) in the bar, is has to be 3/2. If you see two dotted minims (half notes), it's 6/4.

3 2 6 4


Table of Reference

These are the time signatures you need to know for grade 4, and their types.

Simple duple: - 2/4 2/2
Simple triple: 3/8 3/4 3/2
Simple quadruple: 4/8 4/4 4/2
Compound duple: 6/8 6/4 -
Compound triple: 9/8 9/4 -
Compound quadruple: 12/8 - -


There is a complete list of time signatures in our reference section.


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