Beginning to Read Music

by John Craton

More about time signatures

As we’ve already stated, the time signature tells us how many beats are in each measure (the top number) and what kind of note will get one beat (the bottom number). So far we have worked only with 4/4 time, but these numbers can be changed so that we can play different rhythms.

The top number (the number of beats in a measure) can be anything the composer wants, but the rhythms most often used are 2, 3, 4, and 6. In 2 (duple) time, the measures are counted simply 1 – 2 , 1 – 2. In 3 (triple) time we have what is sometimes called a “swing rhythm,” and typically the stress falls on the first beat: 1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3. It has the feeling of swinging back and forth on a swing. In 6 (compound duple) time, there are a total of six beats, but the stress falls on beats 1 and 4. That means we count a fast six or a slow two: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 , 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6. Sometimes you will find music written in other time signatures, such as 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 3/2, or 9/8, but these are not as common. We will work with those as we encounter them.

The bottom number in the time signature tells us the kind of note that will get one beat. This number is limited to the types of notes that exist, as follows:

1 whole note
2 half note
4 quarter note
8 eighth note
16 sixteenth note
32 thirty-second note
64 sixty-fourth note

Of these, you will almost always find either 4 or 8 used in the music we will be playing. Occasionally you will see 2 as the bottom number (the half note receiving one beat), but the others are very rarely used. In nearly all the music we will play, either a quarter note (4) or an eighth note (8) will be used for the beat.

Here is an example of 2/4 (duple) time:

Click here to listen.

Here is an example of 3/4 (triple) time:

Click here to listen.

Here is an example of 6/8 (compound duple) time:

Click here to listen.

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