top of page
  • Writer's pictureTom Glasson

Introduction to Time Signatures

In music, the rhythm is based on the beat. Which is like a background grid that the rhythm ‘follows’. The beat is defined by the time signature so let’s look at how they work.

Time Signatures

They look like this, the top number is how many beats are in each bar, and the bottom number is which kind of beat it is, so this is a quarter note.

In this example, 4/4 means there are 4 beats per bar which are each worth a quarter note.

In each bar, the rhythm of the music will add up to this value. This is the beat, which the rhythm follows, the rhythm doesn’t have to be this at all. Learn more about the basics of time signatures here.

Simple time

There are different categories for time signatures. Firstly, there are 3 types of time signature, duple time, triple time and quadruple time.

Duple means 2, there are two beats per bar, triple is 3 and quadruple is 4.

These time signatures all fit within the categories like this;

Duple - 2/2, 2/4, 2/8, 2/16

Triple - 3/2, 3/4, 3/8, 3/16

Quadruple - 4/2, 4/4, 4/8, 4/16

Conveniently, the top number being 2, 3 or 4 is a massive clue.

Compound Time

Compound time is different to simple time in that the beat is dotted. That means that if the beat is quarter notes, it would be a dotted quarter note, like this, not a plain one like in simple time. This makes a massive difference to the feel of the music, let’s have a look.

The compound time signatures are also split into duple, triple and quadruple time:

Duple - 6/2, 6/4, 6/8, 6/16

Triple - 9/2, 9/4, 9/8, 9/16

Quadruple - 12/2, 12/4, 12/8, 12/16

The way to tell if the time signature is simple or compound is the top number - 2,3,4 is simple, 6,9,12 is compound. Let's compare at 3/4 and 6/8, these time signatures both have the same total value. In this example, they both have a rhythm of 6 8th notes.

3/4 is simple triple time, so there are three beats per bar, each Beat is split into 2.

6/8, is simple duple time, so there are two beats per bar, but unlike simple time the beats dotted, so are split into 3. The beat is followed by two off beats.

The way the beats are divided has a completely different feel and sound.


The last kind of time signatures are irregular. This is all the others, such as ⅞, 5/4 11/16… They are all uneven, and it can even change bar to bar.

A Free Gift for you...

Download the Grade 1 Music Theory Workbook - An Introduction to Music Theory for free. The workbook is a written course which teaches you the entire content of Grade 1 music theory from start to finish, it is the full written version of our video course. It contains activities, with answers, to test your knowledge and give you chance to practice what you are learning.

There are 19 sections, covering every topic as well as reference sheets and materials which will come in handy as you study.

Click here to check it out.

Related Posts

See All
bottom of page