Understanding Time Signatures in Music

Last Updated 9 months ago

While playing a song, there are multiple factors that affect the vibe it gives out such as the chord progression, scales used, phrasing and so on. 

But a lot can change when you tweak the rhythm. A song can sometimes have a beautiful melody and a lovely chord progression to complement it but still may not connect as well to the listener as it could have perhaps because the composer did not pay as much attention to the rhythm.  

The rhythm of a piece is a key factor in setting the desired mood for the listener.

Understanding Time Signatures
Understanding Time Signatures in Music | Credits: behance.net/katevasileva

While the tempo does significantly affect the mood as well, the beat or rather the pulse at which the song plays a much bigger role in doing so.

The time signature of a piece conveys how many beats are played in each bar/measure. In other words, it tells you how you should count your piece while playing it. It is one of the most important factors that determine the rhythm of the song you are playing. 

Understanding the 3 Types of Time Signatures in Music

Now there are 3 types of time signatures – Simple, Compound and Complex time signatures.

And in this article, we’ll dig deeper to learn about them.

So, lets dive in.

— Simple Time Signatures

Simple time signatures are called as they are because as the name suggests, they are simple.  A few time signatures that would fall into this category are: –

4/4: This is the time signature that’s most commonly found in songs. It somehow provides a rounded or a “complete” sound to your piece which makes it easier to write for composers, and comprehend for the listeners in comparison to other time signatures. 

Simple Time Signature
Simple Time Signatures: 4/4

When a piece is in 4/4, it means each bar of the piece consists of 4 quarter note beats. 

A song that is played in this time signature is the well known rhyme “Hot Cross Buns”. 

2/4: Different time signatures may often resemble one another and one clear example is that of 2/4 and 4/4. The reason you may find it similar is, 2 bars of a piece in 2/4 would have the same number of beats as 1 bar in 4/4.

So how would you differentiate the two? 

One easy way to spot the difference between time signatures is following the drummer. In music, the first beat of the bar is emphasized or “accented” and the ones who most often accent it in the most noticeable way are drummers. 

If what you’re listening to is a song where there is no drummer or percussionist, then try following another instrument or even the vocalist. Although it might be harder to spot the accenting or phrasing in comparison to spotting it from a drummer, it still would be possible.

2/4, since it has smaller bars sometimes may tend to give a certain sense of urgency in my opinion. This is does not mean the tempo changes.

Simple Time Signatures: 2/4

 When you play a piece in 4/4 and play the same thing in 2/4 but play it in the same tempo, the only thing different would be the number of times you accent a beat which would be doubled making you feel it going faster or harsher. 

When a piece is in 2/4, it means each bar of the piece consists of 2 quarter note beats. 

I will wait” by Mumford and Sons is an example of a song in 2/4.

I Will Wait by Mumford & Sons ( Official Account )

3/4: Often associated with waltzes, 3/4 is another very common time signature. No matter what the genre is, 3/4 generally gives a little groovier feel be it a waltz by Chopin or a bluesy riff by Jimi Hendrix.

Time Signatures
Simple Time-Signatures: 3/4

Picturing people waltzing while listening to a piece in 3/4 may help better understand this time signature.

When a piece is in 3/4, it means each bar of the piece consists of 3 quarter note beats. 

Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix is an example of a song in 3/4.

— Compound Time Signatures

Compound time signatures are nothing but groups of multiple simple time signatures. 

The emphasizing of the beats however, might be a little different. Having groups of simple time signatures means that each bar would have more beats even though it’s just one bar.

 So to make it more “musical”, apart from giving strong accents to the first beat of the bar, you would also accent the first beat of each group or every alternate group. 

Here are a few compound time signatures:

6/8: 6/8 has two groups of 3/8. To make sure that each bar has structure and a more discernible rhythm, we give a strong accent to the first beat and the fourth beat as well but with a slightly weaker beat which marks the second half of the bar.

6/8- Time Signatures
Time Signatures: 6/8

This time signature has a lot of room for expression and one of the reasons I feel that way is that sometimes when a piece is played in 6/8, the second group of the bar can be played a little different from the first in multiple ways like altering the chord in one of the two groups or if you are playing broken chords, then having the second group arpeggiating the same chord but transitioning to the next inversion or the next octave or even changing the chord itself.

 An example of this can be seen in Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major Op. 27 No. 2.

Chopin – Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 (Rubinstein) by ClassicScores Channel on Youtube

Gravity” by John Mayer and “House of the rising sun” by The Animals are examples of songs in 6/8.

Gravity by John Mayer ( Official Account )
House of the rising sun by The Animals ( Official Account )

9/8: 9/8 has three groups of 3/8. Similar to what we did in 6/8, we would have to accent the beginning of each group in the bar and accenting the first beat stronger than the other accents. But sometimes you would have to…

9/8 Time Signatures
Time Signatures: 9/8

9/8 is a very complex sounding time signature but when you break it down and try playing it after you’ve understood the beats well enough, it wouldn’t be as hard. 9/8 is a time signature that is very open to a lot of experimentation. 

I Hung My Head” and “Big Lie Small World” By Sting are two examples of songs in 9/8. 

I Hung My Head by Sting
Big Lie Small World by Sting

— Complex Time Signatures

Complex time signatures are just as they sound, complex. But even though it is complex, you may have at some point listened to a song or maybe even played a riff in a time signature in this category. 

If that’s the case, then you might think these time signatures are probably not as complicated as it’s name suggests and well I wouldn’t disagree with you entirely. 

Here’s what makes complex time signatures complex. In simple and compound time signatures, you would see that each bar has either just one group or maybe multiple but identical groups. 

Contrarily, while complex time signatures have multiple groups, they are not identical. They are time signatures with odd/uneven groupings.

Most time signatures in this category if not all, make you feel you are listening to music made by some of the smartest beings on the planet and most often, they are the among the most genius of musicians.

5/4: Since there aren’t too many beats in this time signature, it usually is not divided into multiple groups and just has a strong accent on the first beat like in simple time signatures. 

5/4 Time Signatures
Odd Time Signatures: 5/4

However, I usually like to break it into two groups which is 3+2. That way I would be accenting the first and the fourth beat.

Take Five” by Dave Brubeck and “15 Step” by Radiohead are songs written in 5/4.

Take Five by Dave Brubeck ( Unofficial Account )
15 Step by Radio Head ( Official Account )

 7/4: Riffs in 7/4 can often be quite tricky to play.

7/4 Time Signatures
Time Signatures: 7/4

The player would have to put in a lot of thought into it as he/she plays and for the listener, it would sound quite mesmerizing. Depending on the piece, you could either group in 7/4 as 3+4 or 3+2+2.

Money” by Pink Floyd is an example of a song in 7/4.


Understanding time signatures isn’t just helpful for composers but for people who play music or even just listen to music. Studying and understanding time signatures opens one of the many doors to enjoying music to the fullest both for players and listeners.

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