The time signature (also known as meter signature, bar signature, or measure signature) is a convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are in each bar but also which note value constitutes one beat.

In a musical score, the time signature appears at the beginning of the piece, as a time symbol or stacked numerals, such as 3/4 (called  three four time), immediately following the key signature or immediately following the clef symbol if the key signature is empty.

There are various types of time signatures, depending on whether the music follows simple rhythms or involves unusual shifting tempos, including:

  • simple (such as 3/4 or 4/4),
  • compound (e.g., 9/8 or 12/8),
  • complex (e.g., 5/4 or 7/8),
  • mixed (e.g., 5/8 & 3/8 or 6/8 or 3/4),
  • additive (e.g., 3+2+3/8),
  • fractional (e.g., 2½/4), and
  • irrational meters (e.g., 3/10 or 5/24).

There is no need to remember these types by heart, you only need to understand how they are used. The simple examples below will help you understand the concept.

A staff without Time Signatures

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 key=C
notes | |

Lets start with an empty staff. If we split this staff now into into two measures with a bar line, how many notes do we put into each bar? To define how many notes to put into each measure,  we add Time Signatures to the beginning of the staff, or in some cases in the middle of the staff – in case we need to change the initial rhythm.

So, Time signatures define the amount and type of notes each measure contains!

Quarter Note Time Signatures examples

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=true tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=3/4 key=C
notes :4 5/4 0-2/3 |

In this example, a 3/4 time signature defines that the measure contains three (3) quarter notes (1/4).

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=4/4 key=C
notes :4 C-D-E-F/4 |

And in this example a 4/4 time signature defines that the measure contains four (4) quarter notes (1/4).

Non Quarter Note Time Signatures examples

The above are called quarter-note time signatures. We can also have non-quarter-note time signatures.

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=6/8 key=C
notes | |

Here is an empty staff with a 6/8 time signatures, meaning that we can place six eight notes in each measure.

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=6/8 key=C
notes :8 C-D-E-F-G-A/4 |
text :h,.1,six
text ++, .11, :w, eighth (1/8) notes

In this example, see how we placed in the 6/8 time signature, six eight notes.

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=3/2 key=C
notes :h C-D-E/4 |
text :h,.1,three
text ++, .11, :w, half (1/2) notes

In this example,a 3/2 time signature contains three half notes.

Summary

options width=670 space=12 font-size=12
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=3/4 key=C
notes :4 C-D-E/4 |
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=4/4 key=C
notes :4 C-D-E-F/4 |
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=6/8 key=C
notes :8 C-D-E-F-G-A/4 |
tabstave notation=true tablature=false tuning=E/5,A/4,D/4,G/3 strings=4 time=3/2 key=C
notes :h C-D-E/4 |

And here is a summary of all the time signatures described above.

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