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7. Time Signatures (US Version)

Grade One Music Theory - Lesson 7: Time Signatures (USA Version)

Suitable for:  ABRSM Grade 1   Trinity Grade 1   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 


Click here to see this page with the note names in British English


Time Signatures

A time signature is a symbol which we write at the beginning of a piece of music to show how many beats there are in one measure.

Time signatures are made of two numbers, one on top of the other.

Here's a time signature:

Three - Four time signature

Time signatures are written after the clef and key signature, and only appear at the beginning of a piece of music, not on every stave.


Grade One Music Theory Requirements

In Grade 1 music theory (ABRSM and Trinity boards) you need to know three time signatures:

2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 - grade one music theory time signatures


The Bottom Number

The bottom number in a time signature tells you the type of beat we need to count in each measure.

The number 4 represents a quarter note beat. So, in Grade One music theory we only need to think about counting quarter notes, because the lower number is "4" in all three time signatures you need to know at this grade.


The Top Number

The top number tells us how many beats we need to count in each complete measure.


Two Four time signaturemeans we should count two quarter note beats in each complete measure


Three Four time signaturemeans we should count three quarter note beats, and


Four four time signaturemeans we should count four quarter note beats.


Bar lines

We draw vertical measure lines through the stave to divide the music up into complete measures.

(Sometimes the first and last measures of a piece can be incomplete, but all the measures in between must be complete ones).

Here's an example in 2/4:


The values of the notes in each measure always add up to two quarter note beats.


Here's an example in 3/4. This time the first measure is incomplete:


The values of the notes in each measure add up to three quarter notes, except in the first and last measures which are incomplete.


Working out the Time Signature

In the Grade 1 music theory exam (ABRSM and Trinity), you might have to work out the time signature of a short piece. 

Don't forget that in the Grade One music theory exam, you only need to know 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, so the right answer must be one of these three. 

To work out the time signature, add up the note values in one measure, counting a quarter note as 1.

Remember that an eighth note = ½ a quarter note, a sixteenth note = ¼, a half note=2 quarter notes and a whole note = 4. Also, don't forget that a dot increases the length of a note by half of its value.

When you are practicing, write them out, like this:


Count up the notes in each measure, and work out how many quarter notes each measure is worth. 


Bar 1 is worth four quarter notes (and so are all the others). Four quarter notes per measure means the time signature is 4/4.

Here's another example:


There are 2 quarter note beats per measure, so this is 2/4 time.


Adding Missing Bar Lines

In your music theory exam, you might have to add the missing bar lines to a short tune with a given time signature.

Let's work out where to put the bar lines in the following melody. Use the same method: count the quarter note beats. The first bar line has been given.


First, look at the time signature. How many beats do you need to count? (Don't forget, the top number on the time signature tells us how many to count.)

In this melody, the time signature is 3/4, so we need to count three quarter notes in every measure.

It's a good idea to pencil the note values in as you do this exercise - it's easier to work out where you've made a mistake and to double check your answers if you've done so. Let's pencil in those note values:


Start by grouping together fractions to make up complete beats.

Then add the beats together, until you reach the number you need - remember it will always be 2, 3 or 4 quarter notes in the Grade One music theory exam.

Then draw a bar line, (use a ruler for neatness).


After each bar line you draw, start counting again. Repeat the process until you get to the end of the melody.

Your last measure should also have the full number of beats (in the Grade One music theory exam that is, but not always in real life!) Double check your answer - go back and count each measure again. If one of your measures has a different number of beats to the others, you have made a mistake!

Make sure that your bar lines are totally vertical (not leaning to one side or the other), that they don't poke up higher or lower than the staff, and that they are placed about one note-head's width away from the note on the right. Look at the first bar line that you were given as an example, and use it as a guideline. 

Click here for a complete time signature chart (includes all time signatures - not just those on the grade 1 syllabus!)



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