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Common Music Time Signatures

In music, a time signature (also known as meter signature) tells you: (1) How many beats are in each measure of a song, and (2) the note value assigned to each beat. A time signature is generally shown as two numbers stacked on top of one another at the very beginning of a musical composition.

The lower number (denominator) of the time signature indicates the note value assigned to each beat, and the upper number (numerator) represents how many of these beats are in each measure of music. A piece with a time signature of 4/4 consists of four quarter note beats in each measure; 3/4 time consists of three quarter note beats in each measure; and 2/4 time consists of two quarter note beats in each measure. See an example of four-four time below.

time signature example

Clearing up the Confusion

A song with a 4/4 time signature doesn’t mean that you only get to play four quarter notes in each measure throughout the entire song — 4/4 time is simply a way to count each measure of the song. For example, a measure in 4/4 time can contain half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, rests, and notes of other durations, but all note and rest values must combine to equal the duration of four quarter notes.

Common Time: 4/4 Time Signature

The most common time signature in country, bluegrass, and most genres of music is 4/4 time. Often times, people refer to 4/4 time as “common time” and replace the two stacked numbers of the time signature with the letter C. In 4/4, the stacked numbers tell you that each measure contains four beats, and each beat is a quarter note in duration.

Waltz Time: 3/4 Time Signature

The second most common time signature in country and bluegrass music is 3/4 time. In 3/4 time, each measure consists of three quarter note beats. People usually count 3/4 time by saying “one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three”. In 3/4 time, the first beat of each measure is the downbeat, and beats two and three are the upbeats. In country and bluegrass, you often hear accents on the second or third beats.

March Time: 2/4 Time Signature

March Time consists of two quarter note beats per measure. The rhythm is similar to the rhythm of your feet when you march: “left-right, left-right, left-right, left-right.” It’s common to start and stop marching on the downbeat (the first beat of a measure in 2/4 time).

6/8 Time Signature

In 6/8 time, the bottom denominator of “8” means each beat of the measure will be an eighth note in length. The top number of “6” in 6/8 time means there will be six eighth notes per measure. People usually count 6/8 time by saying “one-two-three-four-five-six, one-two-three-four-five-six” with a bit of extra emphasis on the “one” and “four” counts.