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Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

A time signature is the 2 numbers on top of each other at the start of a piece:

time signature

Almost all popular music is written in 4/4 (i.e. it has the time signature 4/4), so if you’re playing genres like pop, rock, hip hop, country, R’n’B, etc., you don’t really have to think about time signatures since they’re almost always the same. However, if you’re playing genres like classical, jazz, folk, alternative, etc. not everything will be in 4/4. You might have noticed that pieces in my Intermediate Classical course use a variety of time signatures, like 4/2, 3/4, and 12/8.

What do they mean?

The top number in a time signature

We already mentioned a few things about time signatures that might have allowed you to guess how they work:

  • Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” had 4 beats in a bar and had the time signature 4/4.
  • Brahms’s Lullaby had 3 beats in a bar and had the time signature 3/4.

So you might have correctly guessed that:

  • the top number in a time signature (usually*) tells you how many beats there are in a bar

The bottom number in a time signature

The second part is less obvious. My note length chart also said that a 14-note is 1 beat if the bottom number of the time signature is 4:

1/4-notes

What if the bottom number’s 2? Then a 12-note is 1 beat. And if it’s an 8? Then an 18-note is 1 beat:

  • the bottom number in a time signature (usually*) tells you what we’re counting as a beat

Let’s work through a couple of examples where the bottom number is something other than a 4, so you get used to counting something other than a 14-note as 1 beat.

Counting 12– or 18-notes as beats

So:

  • in the time signature 4/2 there are 4 × 12-notes in a bar
  • in the time signature 6/4 there are 6 × 14-notes in a bar
  • in the time signature 3/8 there are 3 × 18-notes in a bar

Music teachers often say not to think of time signatures like fractions, and it’s true that technically speaking they’re not, but they do multiply like fractions:

  • 4/2 = 4 × 12-notes
  • 6/4 = 6 × 14-notes
  • 3/8 = 3 × 18-notes

The exceptions

Okay, so why the “usually” in the above 2 rules? Here are the exceptions:

  • *unless the top number is 6, 9, or 12, then there are 2, 3, or 4 beats in a bar, and each beat is split into 3

What?

“Compound” time signatures

Let’s look at my arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2. The time signature is 12/8. Does that mean we count each bar:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12?

No. Look at the LH:

Chopin Nocturne

The 12 × 18-notes are grouped into 4 groups of 3. And that’s how you count 12/8:

1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 3, 2, 3, 4, 2, 3

As 4 beats, where each beat is split into 3.

Chopin Nocturne with beats

How about 6/8? We can look at Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” for guidance:

"O mio babbino"

The 6 × 18-notes are split into 2 groups of 3.

"O mio babbino" with beats

Let’s see how that works in practice:

So if the top number of a key signature is 6, 9, or 12, there are 2, 3, or 4 beats in a bar, and each beat is split into 3:

  • top number is 6 → 2 beats split into 3
  • top number is 9 → 3 beats split into 3
  • top number is 12 → 4 beats split into 3

Note: this applies to all multiples of 3 apart from 3: if the top number is a 3 each bar isn’t “1 beat split into 3”, it’s just 3 beats, e.g. Beethoven’s “Für Elise” in the 1st video on this page.

3/4 versus 6/8

A good way of understanding compound time signatures is to compare the time signatures 3/4 and 6/8. They both have 6 × 18-notes in a bar, but:

  • in 3/4 they’re split into 3 groups of 2
  • in 6/8 they’re split into 2 groups of 3

Compare Brahms’s Lullaby (3 beats split into 2):

Brahms's Lullaby with beats

with Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” (2 beats split into 3):

"O mio babbino" with beats

Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story cleverly switches between the two patterns every couple of bars:

Bernstein's "America"

5/4, 7/8, and other uncommon time signatures

There are some pieces with some number other than 2, 3 or 4 beats in a bar, e.g. “Take Five” and the theme from Mission Impossible, which are both in 5/4, or Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance”, which is in 7/8. However they’re notable precisely because they’re so unusual – don’t worry about unusual time signatures until you encounter them, which might be never.

Where to go from here

Now that you’ve completed my 3 sight reading courses, go and learn some pieces from my Intermediate Classical course or some of my popular arrangements. Or, if you haven’t done them yet, work through my Read Music Fast! and Read Music Fast! Part 2 courses.

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

We covered count 14-beats in part 7, but what about 18-beats? You might have noticed that they appear in Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile and Albinoni’s Adagio. Once again, it’s easier to demonstrate how to count them using a video:

So essentially, just count the 14-beats using the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4”, and if you have to count an 18-beat say an “and” halfway between two 14-beats.

Next up: you’re finally ready for time signatures.

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

We already covered the fact that if you put a dot after a note it multiplies its length by 112. However, you will sometimes see a dot above or below a note, e.g. at the start of the “Andante” from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony:

which sounds like this (just listen to the first 18 seconds):

So what’s going on here?

The notes are obviously “detached”, which is in fact exactly what they’re called – “staccato”, which means “detached” in Italian – but we can be a bit more precise than that.

Staccato notes

Here’s the rule:

  • a dot above or below a note means that you play it as a note half its length, followed by a rest of equal length

That’s a bit of a headache but is much easier to understand if you see it illustrated (click the image to download the PDF):

staccato chart

So the opening of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony is written like this:

Surprise Symphony

but is played like this (“ten.” is short for “tenuto” which means “held”):

Surprise Symphony with rests

And the LH of Bizet’s “Toreador Song” is written like this:

Toreador song

but is played like this:

Toreador song with rests

(Click on any of the images for PDF’s of the full scores.)

Sometimes a staccato note is even shorter than half its length. For instance, in the original orchestral version of Albinoni’s Adagio the bass was played by pizzicato (“plucked”) strings, which I wrote as staccato 14-notes:

Albinoni Adagio

However, I recommend playing them as 116-notes rather than as 18-notes (i.e. as a quarter of their written length rather than as a half), to get the full pizzicato effect:

Albinoni Adagio rests

Why not just write the music the way it’s played? Because a note with a staccato dot is much easier to read and write than a note half its length followed by a rest. (Remember that music notation was originally hand-written.) In each of the above pairs of scores the 1st example is less cluttered than the 2nd.

Next: counting 18-beats.

Reading rhythm, part 9: rests

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

In part 2, I promised to explain the 2nd column of this chart (click the image to download the PDF):

A rest is a symbol that tells you not to play anything for a certain period of time. So a 1-beat rest tells you not to play anything for 1 beat, a 2-beat rest tells you not to play anything for 2 beats, etc.

We can actually work out a lot of the symbols for rests by studying scores, just as we worked out a lot of notes by studying “Ode to Joy”:

Sadly the symbols for rests don’t follow a semi-intuitive pattern like notes do, apart from 18-, 116-, and 132-note rests adding tails, just like 18-, 116-, and 132-notes. Apart from those, you’re just going to have to learn them.

There’s one other thing you need to learn that’s not in the chart: the symbol for a 4-beat rest is also the symbol for a bar-long rest, even if the bar is something other 4 beats long:

Dance of the Hours bar 1

The Swan bar 1

Next we’ll use your knowledge of rests to understand staccato notes.

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

We covered dotted notes in part 4. A dotted rhythm is a particular use of dotted notes, where one note falls on the beat and another falls 34 of the way through the beat, e.g.:

𝅘𝅥𝅮. 𝅘𝅥𝅯

It’s sufficiently common that it’s worth practicing by itself. Pieces in my Intermediate Classical course that use it a lot are Dvořák’s Largo from the “New World” Symphony, Albinoni’s Adagio, Bizet’s “Toreador Song”, and Verdi’s “La donna è mobile”. Let’s work through them one by one:

The most important lesson to remember is: when playing a dotted rhythm, make sure you’re splitting the beat into 4 and not 3.

Next up: rests.