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Time signatures, or meters, are a way to communicate the pulse and feel of a piece of music. Musicians, dancers and listeners alike use them to interpret where the strong and weak beats lie, including their divisions. Find out the specifics of time signature in this lesson.

Time Signature Purpose and Definition

Have you ever seen one of those annoying infomercials for an exercise program? There’s always some overenthusiastic instructor bouncing around, saying, ‘Feel the beat!’ But where is the beat? How can a composer and musician communicate something that is usually heard? The answer is time signature. A time signature, or meter, is a written indicator that shows the number of beats per measure and the type of note that carries the beat in a piece of music.

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The time signature also indicates the feel of a piece of music based on the divisions of the beat. While this is not the most earth-shattering piece of information, it is important in interpreting and understanding music throughout history and from around the world.

Parts of a Time Signature

Example of a quarter note
quarter example

The time signature is shown at the beginning of a piece of music, right after the key signature. If you look at the time signature, you’ll see that it’s made up of two numbers.

The bottom number shows the type of note that carries the beat. In other words, the bottom number determines which type of note we see as the pulse of the music. In this example, we see that the bottom number is four.

If we imagine this as a fraction with a one on top, we can recognize this as a quarter. This means that the quarter note carries the beat.

Example of an eighth note

Let’s look at another example.

Here, the bottom number is eight. When we imagine it as a fraction, we get 1/8 (or an eighth), so we know that the eighth note carries the beat. The most common time signatures use four or eight as the bottom number. But you can also have two or 16 as the bottom number, since these are also types of notes. Some rebel 20th century composers like to make sure you did your math homework by using irrational meter, where the meter has a bottom number that is not a type of note, like 6, to figure out divisions of a beat. But, that’s an explanation for another day.

Example of six beats per measure
Example of three eighth notes
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