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How to Work out a Time Signature

How to Work out a Time Signature in Music

This lesson looks at how to work out a time signature from a printed score. 

 

how to tell the time signatureWork out where the main beats fall and how many there are per bar

how to tell the time signature

Work out the type of beat

how to tell the time signaturePick the right simple, compound or irregular time signature

common mistakes when working out the time signatureBe careful not to mix up 3/4 with 6/8, and 3/2 with 6/4

 


 

Work out Where the Main Beats Fall and How Many There are Per Bar

The extract of music will be either in regular time or irregular time. 

tips for working out the time signature

In regular time, each bar is divided into two, three or four main beats. 

tips for working out the time signature

In irregular time, the bars cannot be divided into two, three or four. 

 

Notes are grouped together to show where the beats fall. Look for ties, rests and beams to help you.

tips for working out the time signature

When there is a tie, the second tied note normally starts a new beat.

tips for working out the time signature

When notes are beamed together, they are grouped into complete beats. The first beamed note starts a new beat.

tips for working out the time signature

 Rests are placed to create complete beats. Smaller rests are used to make it clear where the beat is.

 

Here are some examples.

two beats per barThere are clearly 2 beats in this time signature. The crotchet is one beat, and the other notes are linked together with a beam to make the second beat.

 

two-beats-againWhy are there two tied quavers instead of a crotchet? Because the second quaver falls on the second beat of the bar. There are two beats per bar in this time signature.

 

three-beats-againThe notes are beamed together to make three beats. The semiquavers are not all beamed together - there is a break after the second semiquaver, because the third semiquaver starts a new beat. There are three beats per bar in this time signature.

 

five-beats

 

 The beamed group shows a complete beat. There are five beats in total. This is an irregular time signature.

 

 

restsHere, the rests show how many beats there are. 

Two crotchet rests show that there are three beats in the bar.

 

A smaller quaver rest is used first, so that the dotted crotchet rest can show where the second beat starts. There are two beats per bar.

 

 

tips for working out the time signature2 beats = duple time

tips for working out the time signature

3 beats = triple time

tips for working out the time signature4 beats = quadruple time

 

Work Out the Type of Beat

 When you know how many beats there are in each bar (2, 3, 4 or irregular), you need to work out the type of beat.

tips for working out the time signatureThe beat could be a minimcrotchet or quaver

tips for working out the time signature

The beat could be a dotted minim, dotted crotchet or dotted quaver

 

Here some examples.

two beats per barThere are two crotchet beats per bar.

 

 


two-beats-again

There are two dotted crotchet beats per bar. Each beat is equal to one dotted crotchet (crotchet plus quaver).

 

 

 

three-beats-again There are three dotted crotchet beats per bar. 

 

 

three-minim-beats 

 There are three minim beats per bar. The second tied note shows where the third beat starts. Also the break in the beam shows where the third beat starts.

 

two-dotted-minim-beats This time the break in the beam is in a different place. The second beat starts with the second beamed group. There are two dotted minim beats per bar.

 

 

Pick the Right Simple, Compound or Irregular Time Signature

The Top Number

tips for working out the time signature When the beat is not dotted, the time signature is simple. The top number of the time signature will be 2, 3 or 4.

2=two beats per bar, 3=three beats per bar and 4=four beats per bar.

tips for working out the time signature When the beat is dotted, the time signature is compound. The top number of the time signature will be 6, 9 or 12. 

6=two dotted beats per bar, 9=three dotted beats per bar and 12=four dotted beats per bar.

tips for working out the time signature When the beat is irregular, the top number of the time signature is the same as the number of beats e.g. 5 or 7.

 

The Bottom Number

tips for working out the time signatureWhen the beat is a minim, the bottom number is 2.

tips for working out the time signatureWhen the beat is a crotchet, the bottom number is 4.

tips for working out the time signatureWhen the beat is a quaver, the bottom number is 8.

tips for working out the time signatureWhen the beat is a dotted minim, the bottom number is 4.

tips for working out the time signatureWhen the beat is a dotted crotchet, the bottom number is 8.

tips for working out the time signatureWhen the beat is a dotted quaver, the bottom number is 16.

 

Here is a table showing the types of regular time signatures:

Simple duple, crotchet beat 2/4 Compound duple, dotted crotchet beat 6/8
Simple duple, minim beat 2/2 Compound duple, dotted minim beat 6/4
Simple triple, quaver beat 3/8 Compound triple, dotted quaver beat 9/16
Simple triple, crotchet beat 3/4 Compound triple, dotted crotchet beat 9/8
Simple triple, minim beat 3/2 Compound triple, dotted minim beat 9/4
Simple quadruple, quaver beat 4/8 Compound quadruple, dotted quaver beat 12/16
Simple quadruple, crotchet beat 4/4 Compound quadruple, dotted crotchet beat 12/8
Simple quadruple, minim beat 4/2 Compound quadruple, dotted minim beat 12/4



 common mistakes when working out the time signatureBe Careful not to Mix up 3/4 with 6/8, and 3/2 with 6/4

These are the pairs of time signatures which cause the most confusion.

tips for working out the time signature3/4 and 6/8 have the same total number of notes per bar.

tips for working out the time signature3/2 and 6/4 have the same total number of notes per bar.

 

The difference is that 3 means triple time and  means duple time.

tips for working out the time signature

Time signatures with a top number 3 will have notes grouped into threes.

tips for working out the time signatureTime signatures with a top number 6 will have notes grouped into twos.

 


Here is an example. Look very carefully at how the notes are grouped together.

three-two-or-six-four

In 3/2, the the third quaver starts a new beamed group, to show where the second beat starts.

 

In 6/4, the four quavers are beamed together because they are part of the first dotted minim beat. The second beat starts on the crotchet.

 

 

 

Here's a question for you to practice.

What is the time signature? Point your mouse at the stave to reveal the answer!

what-is-the-time-signature

 

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