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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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9. Simple Time Signatures

Grade Two Music Theory Lesson 9: Simple Time Signatures

Suitable for:  ABRSM Grade 2   Trinity Grade 2   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 


Quick Time Signatures Review

In Grade One Music Theory we learnt three time signatures: 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4. We learnt that the lower number "4" tells us that we need to count crotchet beats and that the top number tells us how many beats to count.

So, 2/4 means "count 2 crotchets per bar", 3/4 means "count 3 crotchets per bar" and 4/4 means "count 4 crotchets per bar".


New for Grade Two Music Theory

In Grade Two Music Theory, we have some new time signatures to look at.

For Grade 2 ABRSM you need to know 2/2, 3/2, 4/2 and 3/8, and for Grade 2 Trinity the time signatures are 2/2, 3/2 and 3/8 only.

The lower number "2" tells us to count minims. 2/2 means "count two minims per bar", 3/2 means "count three minims per bar" and 4/2 means "count four minims per bar".

Sometimes music in 2/2 is written with an old-fashioned time signature which we call “cut common time”. It is a C with a vertical line through it:

cut common time signature

The cut common time signature goes in the same place as a normal modern signature:

cut common time signature stave

And finally, we need to know 3/8. The lower number 8 tells us to count quavers, so 3/8 means "count three quavers per bar".

All the time signatures you have learned so far (3/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, 3/2 and 4/2) are simple time signatures. All simple time signatures have 2, 3 or 4 as their top number. 


Types of Question

In the Grade Two Music Theory exam, you might get a question asking you something like this:

Complete this sentence:
The time signature 2/4 means that there are two ........... beats in a bar.

We need to figure out what kind of beats - so we look at the lower number. The lower number is "4", which means "crotchet" beats. So, the correct answer is "The time signature 2/4 means that there are two crotchet beats in a bar.


Writing Time Signatures

In a typed page like this one, it's ok to write out time signatures as two numbers with a slash between them, like so - 3/8. But when you write time signatures on a stave, in your music theory exam you should make sure you don't write them like this! On a stave, time signatures should be written one number directly above the other and without a slash or line, like so:
Three - Four time signature - music theory

 Time signatures are placed at the beginning of the stave, after the clef and key signature. They only appear right at the beginning of a piece (unless there is a change of time signature in the middle of the piece somewhere).



Here are some short tunes using the new time signatures from the grade two music theory syllabus. Click the play buttons to hear them.






For a complete list of time signatures with examples of how the rhythms are written and grouped, please see our time signatures chart.

In the next lesson, we will look at the types of questions about time signatures that come up in the grade 2 exam.



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