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Time signatures level 2

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Now that we've met the idea of a time signature, it's time to investigate a few more important aspects and meet some new time signatures.

4/4: A reminder

To begin with, let's recall what the numbers in time signature mean.

The top number refers to the number of beats in a bar, and the bottom number refers to the type of beat (4 for a crochet, 8 for a quaver and so on). Therefore, 4/4 consists of four crotchet beats to a bar, whereas 3/4 consists of three crotchet beats to a bar.

Some more time signatures

This principle applies to all time signatures, and there are a lot of possibilities!

In Time signatures level 1, we briefly met a few more time signatures: 2/2, 3/2, 4/2, and 2/8, 3/8, 4/8. These are just like 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 except that we use a different type of beat to count.

For instance, in 2/2 we count two minim beats to a bar, and in 3/8 we count three quaver beats to a bar.

Here's a reminder of all of these time signatures together:

Time signatureConstruction
2/2minim + minim
2/4crotchet + crotchet
2/8quaver + quaver
3/2minim + minim + minim
3/4crotchet + crotchet + crotchet
3/8quaver + quaver + quaver
4/2minim + minim + minim + minim
4/4crotchet + crotchet + crotchet + crotchet
4/8quaver + quaver + quaver + quaver

Duple, triple, quadruple

As you can see, 2/8, 2/4, 2/2 all have two beats and are all counted "in two". There is a special term for time signatures (such as 2/8, 2/4, and 2/2) that are counted in 2, in 3, or in 4: they are said to be in duple time.

To remember this word, it may be helpful to think of the related word double.

Similarly, time signatures counted in 3 (such as 3/8, 3/4, and 3/2) are in triple time, and time time signatures counted in 4 (such as 4/8, 4/4, and 4/2) are in quadruple time.

Just as a quad bike has four wheels, so quadruple time signatures have four beats, whatever the type of beat (minim, crotchet, quaver, etc).

A useful grid

You might find the grid below useful. It sets out the 9 time signatures mentioned above according to the number and type of their beats.

The rows refer to the beat type (quaver, crotchet, or minim), while the columns refers to the number. For instance, reading the 3 beats column and the crotchet row, we find time signature 3/4.

 2 beats
duple time
3 beats
triple time
4 beats
quadruple time

Beat groups

You may have noticed that several different time signatures are actually of the same duration. For instance, 4/4 consists of four crotchet beats, and 2/2 consists of two minims; you know that a minim equals two crotchets, and so 4/4 is exactly the same duration as 2/2.

That is absolutely true, both of these time siguatures are exactly the same length.

However, as we have discussed, the two time signatures refer to a different type of organisation. It is very important to think of 2/2 as having only two beats, and 4/4 as having four beats.

In fact, you have met these two time signatures already - in Bars - 4/4 is just the same as common time and 2/2 is just the same as cut common time.

Strong and weak

Do you remember how some beats in a time signature are strong, and others are weak?

For this reason, we always have at least 2 counting beats in a time signature.

So, we can use both 4/4 and 2/2 to describe music with the same duration per bar, but with a different musical feel ("in four" vs "in two"), but we would never use "1/2" in place of 2/4, for example, as "1/2" would only have one beat, and would be musically meaningless.

The following example shows the same notes written with a feel "in two" (in 2/2) and "in four" (in 4/4). Notice the different markings: Allegro "in two" (i.e., quite quickly), and Andante "in four" (i.e., slower, at a walking pace). Try singing or playing this music while counting the strong and weak beats as indicated.

Strong and weak beats in 2/2 and 4/4Strong and weak beats in 2/2 and 4/4

Common vs cut common time

The example above could equally have been written to compare common time (4/4, or "in four") with cut common time, (2/2, or "in two").

Beat groups

However, although we might have 4 beats to a bar, any music "in four" is naturally felt as two pairs of two, i.e. "strong-weak, strong-weak".

We can therefore consider music "in four" to have two "beat groups"; in the case of 4/4 we can group the 4 crotchet beats into two pairs, each spanning a minim.

This is not the same as 2/2, however! In 2/2, we simply have a single group of "strong-weak" and not two groups ("strong-weak, strong-weak").

The concept of beat groups is important in both the correct interpretation of music (working out the correct "feel") and also in correctly notating music, as we shall see.

Beat groups in triple time

In triple time, we have a pattern of "strong-weak-weak". Therefore, there is no need to break down the beats into more than one group!

Strong and weak beats in 3/4Strong and weak beats in 3/4


The "strong-weak" / "on-off" aspect of duple time signatures is a very powerful musical force, and it's easy to see why: a beat is either strong, or it's weak, and therefore the foundation for the music is very simple and easy to understand.

This pull of "strong-weak" is also felt in triple time signatures. Look at bars 2, 3, and 4 of the 3/4 example above. The rhythm is "long-short, long-short, long-short", and this is a very common pattern in music in triple time.

It's so common that you might have heard that kind of rhythm referred to as "rumty-tumty" music, where the "rum" and "tum" are strong (or long) beats, and the "ty" refers to the weak (or short) beats!

Grouping correctly

Great care must be taken to correctly notate rests and notes of different time values in different time signatures. This is known as "grouping" rests and notes. Rests and notes can be grouped together in several ways:

  • Combining: By addition / combination, to form a larger time value (for example, two quaver rests can be added to form a crotchet rest, or a note of two crotchets in duration can be written as a minim).
  • Tying: Notes of the same pitch can be tied together, making a single note of the combined duration.
  • Adding a dot: As an alternative to tying, it's often possible to simply add a dot to a note to add half the duration again. A dotted crotchet can replace a crotchet tied to a quaver, for example.
  • Beaming: Quavers and smaller notes of different pitch can be "beamed" together by joining their tails.

As a basic rule, we must group notes together according to the basic beat group of two or three beats. Notes which fall within a beat group can be combined by beaming, whereas if you want to combine notes in different beat groups together, you must use ties.

In general, we try to avoid ties within a beat group, however, unless absolutely necessary.

We always aim for the simplest-looking solution, to make it as easy as possible for the music to be read and played. This is usually achieved by using as few symbols (notes or rests) as possible.

Grouping examples

Here are some examples to show how music should be grouped in some different time signatures. Notice how without doing any grouping, the music is always harder to read!

In two

Here is an example showing how we can correctly group some music together into the two beats of 2/4 to better convey the "in two" feel, and to make it easier to read:

Correct grouping in 2/4Correct grouping in2/4

In four

We can think of music "in four" as two bars of music "in two" joined together - two "beat groups", each containing a "strong-weak" pair. So we can combine notes and rests into the two beat groups, as shown here - it's the same piece of music as shown above in 2/4:

Correct grouping in 4/4Correct grouping in4/4

In three

With music in a triple time signature such as 3/4, we simply want to show that there is one group of three beats, and so we try to keep the beats as identifiable as possible. Here is an example:

Correct grouping in 3/4Correct grouping in3/4


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