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  Understanding Music Notation Lesson 8 – Time Signatures  
Christopher Schlegel Tutorial 018 - Learning To Read Music (Page 8 of 17)
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Christopher Schlegel



Understanding Music Notation Lesson 8 – Time Signatures

The next thing to learn about rhythmic notation is the time signature.

The time signature of a piece tells you how many notes are counted per measure and what the standard of measurement of each kind of notes per measure there are. This sounds more complicated than it really is. Time Signatures are set up like fractions: the number on top is the number of notes per measure, and the bottom number is what kind of note is the standard.

For example, the time signature you will most frequently encounter is 4/4. So, the top 4 means you will count to 4 for each measure of music. The bottom 4 is similar to the fractional use of a 4 as a “denominator” – ¼ - and that means the note value that gets one count is a ¼ note - or quarter note.

The top note can be any integer – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. The bottom note can only be part of this sequence - 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on. This relates to the fact that there are only these types of note values:

1 – whole note
2 – half note
4 – quarter note
8 – eighth note
16 – sixteenth note, and so on

So, for example:

3/4 is 3 quarter notes per measure and counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. Every quarter note gets one count.
3/2 is 3 half notes per measure and can also be counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. But every half note gets one count – quarter notes would get half a count being half as long as half notes.
5/4 is 5 quarter notes per measure and counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. Every quarter note gets one count.
6/8 is 6 eighth notes per measure and counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on. Every eighth note gets one count – quarter notes would get 2 counts being twice as long as eighth notes.

The time signature of a piece will give it a very distinctly rhythmic sound, style or “flavor”. For example, a waltz sounds the way it does because it is in some form of 3 – like ¾ or 3/8 time. Some modern classical, jazz fusion and rock sounds “disjointed” or uneven because they are in unusual time signatures – 5/4, 13/8, 17/16 and so on. The vast majority of listeners are not musicians. They don’t care about the time signature, they only want to be able to “tap their foot” in order to follow and enjoy the music. This is why most music is in some form of 2 or 4 – the most straightforward and “even” time to count.

The important thing to take from this is that a piece of music is not automatically good or bad because it is complicated and has tricky time signatures. A piece of music is likewise not automatically good or bad because it is simple and uses common time signatures that non-musicians can easily follow, understand and enjoy.

The time signature is simply another characteristic component of music – every piece has at least one & the best time signature to use is the one that best achieves the composer’s intention.

This image shows various time signatures. Note that the time signature is normally indicated at the beginning of the piece. It is only stated again if it changes.

  Understanding Music Notation Lesson 8 – Time Signatures  
Christopher Schlegel Tutorial 018 - Learning To Read Music (Page 8 of 17)
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