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What Is A Time Signature?

By Edited Apr 16, 2015 1 2

Music, Time And How To Understand Them

Time Signatures Explained

Have you ever seen those funny numbers at the start of a musical score which look more like a math fraction than anything to do with music? This is a time signature and they come in many different types. There are several different factors to understand and choosing numbers isn't an arbitrary process. However, once you know what these numbers represent, the system becomes a lot easier to understand.

What Do they mean

What Do The Numbers Mean?

Ok, let's start with the top number. This represents how many beats there are within a given bar of music. Have you ever heard a musician start a song by saying "1,2,3,4"? that means that they are playing a piece of music with four beats in a bar. The top number of the signature can be any whole number ranging from one to any other whole number. If it is four, then the music has four beats in a bar and if it is seven, then the music has seven beats in a bar and so on. The most important thing to remember is that, unless we go into obscure, avant garde music, this top number must always be whole. The top number is known as the numerator.

The lower number is different and, as a result, has a new different set of rules to adhere to. This lower digit is used to represent what kind of beat we have. Different beats have different time values and they are used for different effects.  This means that, unlike the top number, we can't just pick any old whole number. I find it easiest to remember in this way. The lowest value we can have on the bottom is one and from there, that value can only duplicate. In shorter terms, it can only be the numbers one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty two and so on. These all match up to different measurements of musical time or different beat values. One is a breve, two is a semibreve, four is a crotchet, eight is a quaver, sixteen a semiquaver and thirty-two a demi-semiquaver. This also corresponds with the slightly more modern terminology of whole note (breve), half note (semibreve), quarter note (crotchet), quaver (eighth note), semiquaver (sixteenth note) and demi-semiquaver (thirty second note). The lower number is known as the denominator.

putting it all together

Putting It All Together

This is actually much simpler than it may seem. If I have a time signature with the top value as three and the lower value as eight, then it just means that each bar has three eighth notes, or three quavers depending on which terminology you prefer. Likewise, a bar of five four contains five crotchet, or quarter note, beats. It's worth mentioning that there is a difference in sound between all of these. Basically, the thing to remember is this. The larger the denominator is, then, the quicker the music is likely to be. The breve, represented by the number one, is the largest musical unit of time and everything from there on divides by half. This means that the smaller the denominator, the slower the music will be. If you're listening to some music on the radio and you hear three beats that are going by slowly, then the music might well be in three four or even three two. If there are going be very quickly, it might be in three eight or even three sixteen. 

Hopefully this article has been useful to you so please leave a comment and let me know if it has been! If you're interested in learning more about music theory then I recommend The AB Guide To Music Theory as a good place to start!


The AB Guide to Music Theory, Part 1 (Pt. 1)
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Apr 14, 2015 10:40pm
Great article Hugh! You break down the theory behind timing quite nicely.
Apr 14, 2015 10:54pm
Thanks Dallas. I'm so glad you found this helpful!
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