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7. Adding Bar Lines and Time Signatures (US Version)

Grade Three Music Theory - Lesson 7: Adding Bar Lines or a Time Signature to a Melody

 Click here to read this lesson with UK terminology e.g. "quarter note" instead of "quarter note".

New at Grade Three

In your grade three music theory exam you might have to add a time signature to a short melody.

Although you also had this task at grade two, it’s a bit harder at grade three.

This is partly because the time signatures 3/4 and 6/8 have the same number of eighth notes in them, so it’s harder to tell them apart. You’ll also find the rhythms are a bit more complicated, which might include sixteenth notes, dotted notes and tied notes.

The time signatures you need to choose from at grade three are:

  • 2/2, 3/2, 4/2 (half note beat)
  • 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 (quarter note beat)
  • 3/8 (eighth note beat)
  • 6/8, 9/8, 12/8 (dotted quarter note beat – these are the compound time signatures)


Adding a Time Signature

To work out a time signature you need to discover two things:

  1. What kind of beat is the main beat?
  2. How many of these main beats are there per measure?

The easiest way to work out what kind of beat is the main beat, is to look for notes which are beamed together. (Obviously you need to look for a measure with eighth notes or sixteenth notes).

  • Notes are beamed to add up to one whole beat. You need to work out what kind of note you need one of, to equal the notes which are beamed.
  • When a new beat begins, a new beam begins too.
  • Notes can also be beamed to add up to one whole measure, but only in simple time.

To work out how many main beats per measure there are, draw a circle around each group of notes that makes one full beat. Each circle has to contain the same value of notes overall. Then count the number of groups you circled. The number of circles in one measure is the number of beats per measure.

To work out the time signature, look at the information you have worked out.

The number of circles per measure will be 2, 3 or 4. This tells you whether the time signature is dupletriple or quadruple. Duple time signatures have either 2 or 6 as their top number. Triple time signatures has 3 or 9 as their top number. Quadruple time signatures have 4 or 12 as their top number.

If each circle adds up to the value of a half note, the beat is a half note and the time signature will have a lower number 2. The top number will be 2, 3 or 4.

If each circle adds up to a quarter note, the lower number will be 4. The top number will be 2, 3 or 4.

If each circle adds up to a eighth note, the lower number will be 8. The top number will be 3. (2/8 and 4/8 don't come up in the grade 3 exam).

If each circle adds up to a dotted quarter note, the lower number will be 8 (compound time). The top number will be 6, 9 or 12.

Here’s an example question.

Add the time signature to this melody:

add the time signature to this melody

Look at the first measure and notice how the sixteenth notes are beamed. There are two joined together, and four joined together. Use the larger group.

Four sixteenth notes=1 quarter note. The first note of that group (the first G) must be the start of a new main beat, so the main beat is a quarter note. (If the main beat had been a dotted quarter note, the other two sixteenth notes would also be joined on, making six beamed sixteenth notes in total).

Look at measure 3. The eighth notes and sixteenth notes are agained grouped together to add up to one quarter note each.

The main beat is therefore a quarter note beat. 

Next, work out how many quarter notes there are in each measure:

divide each measure up

In each measure there are 3 quarter notes' worth of beats.

(Notice that the last measure doesn’t have a measureline at the end – it’s not a complete measure, so it doesn’t matter how many beats there are in it.)

Because the main beat is a quarter note, the lower number of the time signature is 4. Because there are three quarter notes per measure, the top number is 3. The time signature is 3/4.

Here is another example:

a more difficult example

Choose measure 4 to look at first, as it has the most eighth notes/sixteenth notes.

  • Remember that the notes are beamed to together to make one of something. What value do the beamed notes add up to? The answer is: the dotted quarter note. One dotted quarter note is worth the same as [sixteenth note+dotted eighth note+ eighth note], and one dotted quarter note is worth the same as three eighth notes.
  • It is compound duple time, because the main beat is a dotted note. The top number is 6.
  • The bottom number is 8. (The bottom number is 8 because there the top number is 6, and there are 6 eighth notes' worth in each measure.)

Sometimes there will be no eighth notes or sixteenth notes to help you. If that is the case, you need to remember that there can only be 2, 3 or 4 beats per measure, no other number! (For grade 3 theory, that is!) Look at this example:


another example

  • The first measure contains eight quarter notes.
  • Quarter notes can’t be the main beat, because there are too many of them (8).
  • Whole notes can't be the main beat, because whole notes are never used as the main beat (there are no time signatures with the lower number 1).
  • So, half notes are the main beat.
  • There are four half notes per measure.
  • The time signature is 4/2.

 Adding Bar Lines

You might be asked to add bar lines to a melody. 

Look carefully at the time signature and write down the following information:

  • How many beats
  • Type of beats

Take your time – it’s easy to make mistakes when you’re in a rush!

Carefully count the notes, marking off each complete beat.

When you’ve reached the number of beats you need to make a complete measure, use your ruler and draw a neat bar line quite close to the first note of the next measure.

Continue until you get to the end of the piece.

  1. very careful attention to the end of the piece.
  • If there is a bar line after the last note, the last measure must be complete.
  • If there isn’t a bar line, the last measure can contain any number of notes, (as long as it’s not longer than a normal measure!) It might or might not be complete, so be careful.

Here’s an example:

add bar lines to this melody

The time signature is 4/4, so each measure needs four quarter note beats

Count and mark off the quarter note beats until you reach four, then draw a bar line:

count and mark off the quarter note beats


repeat in the next measure

Double check the last measure – there is a bar line here so it should be a complete measure:

double check the last measure



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