In Part II of the How to Read Music Info Barrel series we talked about rhythm and rests. Now wer'e going to look at how a piece of music is divided into smaller sections and we how to mentally count rhythms to keep your place in a piece of music.


Excerpt with time signature

Look at the excerpt above. See the numbers immediately to the right of the bass clef? This is called a time signature. You should also notice that the excerpt is divided up into four-beat sections by vertical lines. These sections are called measures or bars and the lines are called barlines. These are all part of an aspect of music known as meter.

Meter is the division of music into measures of accented and unaccented beats. The concept of meter is inherited from the rhythmic element of poetry, in which it refers to the number of lines in a verse and the patterns of stressed and unstressed and long and short syllables. The image below, courtesy of the Wikimedia foundation, shows a line from a poem below an approximation of its rhythm using musical notation.

Meter in poetry

Meter is one of the more complex and confusing topics in music. An in-depth explanation of meter is beyond the scope of this article. For those of you that would like to know more than the few basics that will be covered here, I will be publishing a seperate article in the future that will provide an in-depth explanation of musical meter.

The most common time signatures

The image above shows the most common time signatures in music. The top number tells us how many beats are in a measure, and the bottom number tells us which note value receives one beat (1 for a whole note, 2 for a half note, 4 for a quarter, 8 for an eighth, etc.) Although we learned in the previous section that the quarter note receives one beat, this is only true when the bottom number of the time signature is 4. Since most music is written in 4/4, 2/4, or 3/4, the quarter note usually gets the beat. Here is a little more about each of the most common time signatures:

  • 4/4, or "common time," is the most common time signature. Each measure in 4/4 consists of four quarter note beats. 4/4 is often abbreviated with the letter "c," as shown in the image above.
  • 3/4 is another very common meter, often called "waltz time." Each measure in 3/4 has three quarter note beats.
  • 2/4 is a meter in which each measure contains two quarter-note beats.
  • 2/2, also known as "cut time" or "alla breve," is similar to 4/4, except there are two half-note beats. This implies a quicker tempo and a feeling of being "in two" rather than "in four." Cut time is often abbreviated with a "c" with a line through it, as shown above.
  • 6/8 contains six eighth note beats per measure, but it is usually though of as containing two beats, each consisting of three eighth notes.
  • 9/8 is like 6/8, but there are nine eighth notes grouped into three beats.

That's it for Part III of the How to Read Music Info Barrel article series. Meter is one of the more difficult concepts to grasp in music notation and, although we did not explore the topic in depth, you may want to make sure you really have a handle on the basics before proceeding to part 4. Here's your vocabulary review for this article:

  • time signature: the two numbers at the beginning of a piece that establish the meter.
  • measure: a group of beats between two barlines; also known as a bar.
  • barline: the vertical lines that divide individual measures.
  • meter: the division of music into measures of accented and unaccented beats.
  • common time: 4/4; the most common meter.
  • cut time: 2/2; a meter in which measures contain two half-note beats; also known as alla breve.
  • waltz time: 3/4; a meter with measures of three quarter-note beats; also known as "waltz-time."