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Meter: Reading Time Signatures

22 July, 2019 - 10:18
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Most time signatures contain two numbers. The top number tells you how many beats there are in a measure. The bottom number tells you what kind of note gets a beat.

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Figure 1.47 Time Signatures
In "four four" time, there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets a beat. Any combination of notes that equals four quarters can be used to fill up a measure. 

You may have noticed that the time signature looks a little like a fraction in arithmetic. Filling up measures feels a little like finding equivalent fractions, too. In "four four time", for example, there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets one beat. So four quarter notes would fill up one measure. But so would any other combination of notes that equals four quarters: one whole, two halves, one half plus two quarters, and so on.


If the time signature is three eight, any combination of notes that adds up to three eighths will fill a measure. Remember that a Dots, Ties, and Borrowed Divisions is worth an extra half of the note it follows. Listen21 to the rhythms in Figure 1.51.

Figure 1.48 If the time signature is three eight, a measure may be filled with any combination of notes and rests that adds up to three eight. 

Exercise 1.11

Write each of the time signatures below (with a clef symbol) at the beginning of a staff. Write at least four measures of music in each time signature. Fill each measure with a different combination of note lengths. Use at least one dotted note on each staff. If you need some staff paper, you can download this PDF file.

  1. Two four time
  2. Three eight time
  3. Six four time

A few time signatures don't have to be written as numbers. Four four time is used so much that it is often called common time, written as a bold "C". When both fours are "cut" in half to twos, you have cut time, written as a "C" cut by a vertical slash.

Figure 1.49 Common time