This course will become read-only in the near future. Tell us at if that is a problem.

Time Signatures

A Time Signature is another symbol usually consisting of numbers that stack on top of one another in the beginning of a piece. It is also on the staff but it is after the clef symbol.


There are also two other symbols that look like C's but we will talk about that later.


So what is a time signature? 

In my book "Dodecatonic Wha?!?" I explain it like this:

"First the top number tells you how many beats per measure you will have. That just means if you have a measure with all quarter notes you will have 4. If the top number was 3 than you would have 3. The bottom number tells what duration of the note receives the beat.


This means almost the same in music 4 usually means quarter. This means there will be 4 quarter notes in one bar to fill it up. So if there was a 4 on top but 2 on bottom. You would need 4 half notes to fill a bar. Etc…


Now 4/4 is also called common time because it is the most common time signature you will find so sometimes it might not be the 4 overlaying the other 4 it may be a big C to say common time. Or a big C with a slash going through it which means cut time. Cut time merely means half of 4/4 which is just 2/2."


So to summarize we will usually have two numbers stacking on top of one another. The top number represents how many of the bottom number beats you will have in the measure. 

The bottom note represents what rhythmic note will be used to fill the measure.

So if it is 3/1 You will have 3 whole notes. 3/2 is 3 half notes, 3/4 is 3 quarter notes. 3/8 is 3 eighth notes. Etc...


So the symbols are just the numbers stacked, but the other symbols a C, and a C with a slash through it can also be seen in music. To reiterate the symbol C means common time which is 4/4.

The C with the slash through it means cut time which is 2/2/


Here are all the symbols:


Sorry that the last time signature Common Time is a bit off of the lines, I don't know why it did that...


TASK: Discuss with people questions about time signatures. Find 1 partner that is either better or worse with the understanding of time signatures and help each other out!

Task Discussion

  • Colin   July 10, 2013, 11:16 a.m.


    4/4 is 4 beats in the bar

    3/4 is 3 beats in the bar

    2/4 is 2 beats in the bar

    6/8 would be 2 whole beats in the bar that could be subdivided by 3 half beats each. 6 half beats in a full bar.

  • KQuinn   July 10, 2013, 6:03 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Colin   July 10, 2013, 11:16 a.m.

    Hi Colin,

    That's basically the idea, but it can be fleshed out just a bit more:

    In 4/4, there are four beats to each measure and the quarter note gets the beat.

    3/4 is the same idea but there are three beats to each measure with the quarter note getting the beat.

    In something like 6/8, you are going to have six beats to the measure with the eighth note getting the beat. You can also, in a way, subdivide this into 3/4 time, but I'm at a little bit of a loss as to how to explain it in that way.

    Hope I helped some!


    ~ Katlin

  • Colin   July 17, 2013, 6:21 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KQuinn   July 10, 2013, 6:03 p.m.

    Hi Katlin, I have posted my final exam and have had no reply as yet. Do you know how long it takes?

  • Paul Fredericks   Dec. 7, 2012, 7:17 p.m.

    I just took a listen to this and believe it to be 6/8 as well.

  • Ghost220   Dec. 5, 2012, 9:45 p.m.

    I already have a firm grasp on time signatures, and have even played a song in 12/8 times. Machine Head "now i lay thee down"

  • ToddF   Dec. 7, 2012, 1:28 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Ghost220   Dec. 5, 2012, 9:45 p.m.

    I just you tubed the tune.  It feels like 3/4 or 6/8 to me.  I think it's just the transcriber's personal preference which of the three candidate times signatures are used.  What do you think?  for me, the tune is too fast for 3/4, and 12/8 gives too many events per bar, so I would opt for 6/8...