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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Online Theory Exams Grades 1-5:
16th March 2021
Next UK Trinity Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 1-8:
Sat 8th May 2021

Time Signature Chart

This time signature chart shows the most common regular time signatures.


A regular time signature is one which represents 2, 3 or 4 main beats per bar. 

Duple time means 2 main beats per bar

Triple time means 3 main beats per bar

Quadruple time means 4 main beats per bar


The time signature chart also shows you which are simple and compound time signatures.

Simple time signatures have a main beat which divides into two 1st level sub-beats.

Compound time signatures have a main beat which divides into three 1st level sub-beats.

In both simple and compound time, 2nd level sub-beats always subdivide by two (never by three).


 Any time signatures which do not have 2, 3 or 4 main beats per bar are classed as irregular. They are not shown in this time signature chart.


Time Signature Chart
    Main beat/1st sub-beat/2nd sub-beat Comments
Simple duple 2/4   2-4

In simpe duple time, there are two main beats per bar.

The 1st and 2nd level sub-beats are beamed to show two beats per bar.

2/2   2-2
 Simple triple 3/8   3-8

In simple triple time, there are three main beats per bar.

The 1st level sub-beats are beamed in sixes, and the 2nd level sub-beats are beamed to show three beats per bar.

3/4   3-4
3/2  3-2
Simple quadruple   4/8  4-8

In simple quadruple time, there are four main beats per bar.

The 1st level sub-beats are beamed across two main beats. The 2nd level sub-beats show four beats per bar.

4/4  4-4
4/2  4-2
Compound duple  6/8  6-8

In compound  time, the main beats are dotted.

The 1st level sub-beat is beamed in threes, and the second level sub-beat is beamed in sixes.

6/4  6-4
Compound triple  9/8  9-8
9/4  9-4
Compound quadruple  12/8  12-8
12/4  12-4


You will probably come across other time signatures which are not on this chart. In Bach's first book of 48 Preludes and Fugues, for example, you can find the time signatures 12/16 and 24/16. Time signatures with a lower number 16 are rare, but do crop up from time to time. However, the chart shows you the most common regular time signatures which you are likely to find today.

Taking an exam? Read our free online lessons on time signatures for grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, grade 4 and grade 5 ABRSM music theory exams.

How do time signatures work? Watch this short video!



How Time Signatures Work - Information from the Video

Time signatures give you information about the "main beat" in a piece of music, and how that beat is divided up.


Main Beats

Most music has 2, 3 or 4 "main beats" per bar. This is the pulse you would tap your foot or clap to. Music with 2, 3 or 4 pulses per bar is called "regular".

Some music written since the turn of the 20th century has an "irregular" main beat, meaning that there are not 2, 3 or 4 main beats per bar, but some other number. Common irregular pulses are 5 or 7 main beats per bar. ( in simple time).

Music with 2 main beats per bar is in "duple" time. Three beats per bar="triple" time, and 4 beats="quadruple" time.


Subdivided Beats & Regular Patterns

Each of the main beats can be split into smaller note values. This is called a "subdivision".

There are only two ways to split a main beat - into two halves, or into three thirds.

This gives us six possible regular patterns for time signatures.


Simple and Compound Time

When the main beat is divided up into two, it is "simple time". The top number of the time signature is 2, 3 or 4, depending on how many main beats per bar there are.

When it subdivides into three, it is "compound time". The top number of the time signature is 6 (2 beats), 9 (3 beats) or 12 (4 beats).


Types of Main Beat

The reason why we have more than 6 regular time signatures is because we can use different lengths of note for the main beat.

The note used for the main beat is most often the quaver, crotchet or minim, the dotted crotchet or the dotted minim.

An undotted main beat always subdivides into two (simple time), but a dotted main beat always subdivides into three (compound time).

The lower number of the time signature shows you what type of beat to count. 2=minim, 4=crotchet or dotted minim, 8=quaver or dotted crotchet and 16=semiquaver.


Further Subdivisions

Each subdivision can, of course, be divided up again into even smaller notes. All further sub-divisions are into two, whatever the time signature. (If you want to subdivide into three, you need a triplet.


Irregular Time

Irregular time signatures are always simple (the main beat divides into two).

The top number will tell you how many main beats there are per bar, and the bottom number tells you what type of beat.

E.g. 5/8 is five quavers per bar, or 11/16 is eleven semiquavers.


Aural Differences

To our ears, it is very difficult to tell the difference between these time signatures with the same basic pattern. Generally though, when the main beat is a quaver, the tempo is quick, and when it is a minim the tempo is slow.


Notation Differences

It is easy to tell the difference between time signatures with different basic patterns, because the notes in the bar will be grouped according to their pattern.

When there are two main beats per bar, the notes are grouped into two equal-sized blocks, three beats per bar = three blocks and so on.

Notes are grouped with the use of a) note values which fall on the beat (not off it), b) beaming and c) ties.

Try to draw blocks around each beat of the bar.

  • Each block must be the same size.
  • Notes which are the main beat, have to fall at the start of the block.
  • Ties are used when a note begins in one block but ends in another.
  • Beams don't cross blocks.
  • Beams are not broken within blocks.


Triplets & Duplets

Sometimes we will want to split a main beat into three in a simple time, instead of the usual two. Or in a compound time, we might want to split the beat into two instead of three.

When the main beat is divided into a number which is not the one expected, we draw a bracket over the affected notes and write a number to show the subdivision we want. (If the notes are already joined with a beam, you don't need a bracket as well).

For example in simple time the main beat can be subdivided into three with a bracket and a three, called a "triplet". In compound time, we can write a two, which makes a "duplet".

Watch out- a triplet doesn't always have three notes in it! A crotchet plus a quaver can make a triplet (because added together they make up the same as 3 quavers).


The Anacrusis

An anacrusis is a bar which begins a composition which has fewer than the expected number of notes in it. When counting bars, bar 1 is always the first full bar. The last bar of a piece has to take into account any anacrusis.


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