# How do time signatures work?

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The top number refers to how many beats that are in a measure. The bottom number refers to the type of note that is worth one beat. So a 4/4 time signature indicates that each measure has the equivalent of four quarter notes in it.

OK, let’s start with the concept of a “beat”. If you were going to march in time with music, each step is one “beat”. Hopefully there’s no question as to what that is. Keep in mind that it’s rare for beats to come by so quickly that you couldn’t count them. So if you’re tempted to define a “beat” to be something so fast you can’t step that fast or count “1-2-3-4” that fast, then you’re probably counting twice as many beats as you should. Step every other note or every 3 notes or whatever makes sense.

OK, now we’ve got a beat. How many beats should there be in a measure?

This is the part that’s COMPLETELY arbitrary. We’ve decided that the vast majority of the time, music is going to have four beats in a measure. Really, there’s no reason it has to be that way. It could have been 2 or 8.

So 4/4 time is the most common time signature. It says that there are four beats in a measure, and each beat represents a 1/4 note, which is the note written like this:

# ♩

That’s kind of a recursive definition, because a 1/4 note just means a quarter of a measure!

It seems silly, until you get to music in 3/4 time. That’s probably the next most common. Music in 3/4 time is a waltz. Do a Google search for some common music in 3/4 time and listen to it. If you count along with the music, you’ll find yourself counting in 3’s or 6’s.

Now, someone could have decided to call that 3/3 time. After all, there are 3 beats in a measure, and each beat is 1/3 of the measure, right?

But, they decided that it doesn’t work that way. We take the quarter note – the one that’s NORMALLY 1/4 of a NORMAL measure, and we put just three of those in a measure.

That’s why we write a waltz as 3/4 time.

So what is 6/8 time? It seems weird because doesn’t that just simplify to 3/4 time? Sure, the measure is the same length, it just means that instead of 3 quarter notes in a measure, you will see 6 eighth notes:

3/4 time: ♩♩♩

6/8 time: ♪♪♪♪♪♪

There really aren’t that many common time signatures, though. 99% of pop music is 4/4 time. Probably 95% of western music in all genres is 4/4 time. Most of the rest is 3/4 or 6/8.

There’s some really cool music in more unusual time signatures like 5/4, 7/4, 7/8, even 11/4 – but it’s VERY rare. Some 5/4 songs you might have heard of include Take Five, the Mission Impossible theme, and the Incredibles theme.