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10. Working with Time Signatures

Grade Two Music Theory Lesson 10: Working with Time Signatures

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


In the Grade Two Music Theory exam, your knowledge of time signatures will be tested in a variety of ways. Here are some of the questions that might come up:

  • Adding bar lines to a melody with a given time signature
  • Adding a time signature to a melody with given bar lines
  • Rewriting a melody in a new time signature
  • Adding rests of the correct time value
  • Composing a rhythm
  • Questions about the meaning of the numbers in time signatures

In this lesson we will look at adding bar lines or a time signature. Rewriting in a new time signature is explained in lesson 11, adding rests in lesson 12, and composing a rhythm is covered in lesson 16.


Adding Bar Lines

If you are asked to add bar lines to a short melody, you'll be given the time signature and the first bar line will be in place already.

The question could look something like this:

Add the missing bar lines to this tune. The first bar line is given.

Add the missing barlines to this tune - grade two music theory question


Look carefully at the time signature - how many beats are there per bar, and what type of beats are they? 

This melody is in 3/4, so we need to have three crotchet (quarter note) beats per bar.

Underneath each note, carefully pencil in its value, like this:

Pencil in the note values - music theory barlines question


Now count out the note values, and draw a bar line when each bar has the value of three crotchets (quarter notes):

Draw the barlines - grade two music theory

See lesson 15 for more about adding bar lines to melodies that contain triplets.


How to Draw Bar Lines in Your Music Theory Exam

You could lose points if your work is messy or difficult to read. Always use a ruler to draw your bar lines neatly.  Place them closer to the edge of the 1st note in the bar, like this:

Correct place for barline - music theory

Don't draw the bar line too close the last note of the bar, and make sure you leave more space for longer note values. This bar line is in the wrong place because there isn't enough space after the minim (half note), and it's not close enough to the crotchet (quarter note):

Barline is too far to the left - music theory notation 

This bar line is also in the wrong place, because it's more or less exactly half way between the two notes, instead of being closer to the crotchet (quarter note):

Don't put the barline in the middle - music theory notation

In the Grade Two Theory Exam, every bar should be a complete bar, even the last one (although in real life the last bar can be incomplete).


Working Out a Time Signature

The method for adding a time signature is the opposite of that for adding bar lines.

Here's an example question:

Add the time signature to this tune.


Start by counting the notes in each bar. Use a value of 1 for a crotchet (quarter note), 1/2 for a quaver (eighth note), 2 for a minim (half note) and so on. Group quavers (8th notes) and semiquavers (16th notes) together to make complete beats:


Here you can see that each bar contains three crotchet (quarter note) beats. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats to count in each bar, so the top number must be 3 in this case. The lower number tells you what kind of beats to count, and the number 4 means "crotchet" (quarter note) beats, so our time signature needs to be 3/4. 

Remember that the lower number of the time signature tells you the type of beats you need to count. In Grade Two, there are only three possibilities:

  • 2 = minims (half notes)
  • 4 = crotchets (quarter notes)
  • 8 = quavers (eighth notes)

And, in Grade Two, there are only three possibilities for the top number too. Your top number will always be 2, 3 or 4.

This means the answer can only be one of these time signatures:  3/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, 3/2 or 4/2. (4/2 is ABRSM only for grade 2)


Difficult Time Signatures

Let's try another question, this time a bit harder. What's the time signature for this tune?


When you count up the notes in each bar, you'll find there are in fact 8 crotchet (quarter note) beats per bar. So is the time signature 8/4?

Well, no. (The time signature 8/4 does exist, but it's very rare and it's definitely not on the Grade Two Music Theory syllabus!)

We can count the minims (half notes) instead, and we'll find that we have four minim beats per bar.

When we count minims (half notes), the time signature has the number "2" as the bottom number. We counted four minims, so the time signature must be 4/2. Other "minim" (half note) time signatures you might see in the Grade Two music theory exam are 2/2 and 3/2.

Here's a final question. What time signature do we need here?


Here, we can't count crotchets (quarter notes), because we would have one and a half beats per bar, which is not possible - no half beats allowed! We can't count minims (half notes) either, so we'll need to count quavers (eighth notes).

This melody has three quaver (8th note) beats in each bar, so the time signature must be 3/8. Remember that the "8" means "quaver beats" (eighth note beats).

2/2 or 4/4?

You might be wondering what the difference is between 4/4 and 2/2, as they have exactly the same number of beats per bar?

Well, the answer is, not much! If you see lots of minims (half notes), you could choose the 2/2 time signature. If you see lots of crotchets (quarter notes), you could use the 4/4 time signature. But don't worry if you're not sure which one it should be - in the Grade Two music theory exam these two time signatures are completely interchangeable.

Here are some typical 4/4 bars - you can usually find crotchets and quavers (quarters and eighths) in the melody:

Typical bars of 4/4 time - music theory

And here are some 2/2 bars - you'll often see more minims and crotchets (half notes and quarters), and not so many quavers (8th notes):

Typical bars in 2/2 time - music theory

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