Music Theory and Composition : Music Theory and Composition

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Time Signatures – The Symbols



A Tonal System

Scales in Music – A Tonal System

Music Theory Section – Level 2

Time Signatures – The Symbols – Part 22c


Welcome to Time Signatures – The Symbols – Part 22c. This is the third part of our mini-series on the subject of time signatures. There are many symbols used in music composition and notation which instruct performers on how to play the written music. Time signatures are a key component of those instructions.


As a reminder, in music theory, the collection of musical symbols which defines the number of beats in a single measure as well as which note shape or value gets one beat is called the Time Signature as used in music notation and composition.

The following chart demonstrates the first time signature we explored in Time Signatures – Part 22b. It is one of the most often used time signatures in music, the 4/4 time signature. For convenience it is shown below.

Quarter note gets one beat.There are many more time signatures available to a composer of music. We will be exploring many of these symbols throughout this article – Time Signatures – Part 22c.

Prerequisite Articles

There are eight related articles in two categories, already published on this site, which will support this article and its content. All six should be considered as prerequisite articles.  They are; Time Signatures – Part 22a and Part 22b in the Music Theory Section – Level 2 series of articles.

The independent articles are – Basic Characteristics of Sound, The Musical Note, Speed in Music – Tempo and three articles within the Music Theory – Level 1 series – Note Identification –Part 11, The Musical Rest – Silence in Music –Part 12 and Dotted Notes and Rests – Part 13 will be sufficient for well rounded understanding of Time Signatures.

Please continue your study of Time Signatures below or if you feel you need to review some additional information consider reviewing the prerequisite articles listed above.

Time, Meter, Tempo and Rhythm

There are four expressions used in music to represent a form of or an influence of duration. They are Time, Meter, Tempo and Rhythm. Each is an influential and each is an independent system and yet inter-dependent so as to create something that sounds musical. They are often confused or misused in their meaning and purpose. We will attempt to help you to understand each because the underlying concepts are not interchangeable nor do each of these terms have the same meaning. Carefully read the descriptions below and compare each to the others.

Time – was thoroughly discussed in part 22a of this mini-series. Time should be considered as a linear one dimensional idea representing the past, the present and the future. It means that we can distinguish between one note to the next as a relationship of before, during or after another note. Time is a quantitative measure related directly to clock time.

Meteris the repetitive pattern of the succession of pulses in music. Meter is characterized by its regular occurrence and re-occurrence within time, specifically, in a measure of music and/or repeated in subsequent measures. It is subject to and it is a subset of time. It is designated by the use of time signature symbols. Meter is actually a qualitative characteristic of music rather than a quantitative measure such as the tempo. Although note and rest pulses and their repetitive patterns are influenced by time and tempo as far as duration or the quantitative measure of music, the actual patterns do not measure time. Consequently, Meter is not directly a measure of time, as such, rather time directly effects the duration of the pattern or meter in music.

Tempo – was discussed at length in our article, Speed in Music – Tempo. Tempo is a quantitative measure of the actual number of beats per minute the music flows. It is directly related to time itself and the actual count of beats occurring within a specified period of time, usually one minute of clock time, sets the rate at which the music flows within clock time.

It also directly influences the actual duration based on clock time for notes and rests as the faster the tempo the shorter the length of clock time for a given note or rest duration symbolized by its shape. For example; a quarter note performed at a tempo of 60 beats per minute is longer in actual clock time duration than a quarter note played as 200 beats per minute.

Rhythmis the perceivable pattern of stress or attacks rather than exclusively the stress itself. Within a measure of music with a 4/4 time signature, the pulse in this case, means to stress any one or a combination of beats within the measure, either the first and third beats or the second and fourth beats for example. Rhythm is not simply the number of beats per measure. It is the act of stressing notes during performance of them, usually on the beat however, because rhythm is distinctly different from meter, rhythm can also fall off the beat in more advanced rhythmic structures or patterns. Rather than being a specific unit of time, rhythm is felt and inherent within the music itself. Rhythm is also repetitive like Meter however neither should be considered monotonous or identical in meaning and both are needed in order to understand music and to express your intent as the composer. We will be discussing rhythm in much more detail in future articles.

These four expressions formulate the influences of time on music. As mentioned above, time was discussed in Part 22a of this mini-series. Tempo was discussed in Speed in Music – Tempo. Let us now review Meter as designated by the time signature.

Perfect Time and Imperfect Time

In the first article of this series, Part 22a we reviewed the entire idea of time itself with a certain focus on real versus unreal in concept. If you thought that article was way out there, try this one, perfect and imperfect time. Perfect time makes sense as that is based in principles within our normal understanding of time itself. Imperfect time does not make sense when looking at the term alone as how can time be imperfect? Let’s explore the differences between these two concepts.

Symbolic Meaning - Time Signature

Perfect Time – The chart above demonstrates the names of each of the numbers used in a time signature. The numerator or top number indicates whether the measure can be subdivided into equal halves or thirds. The rule of thumb is that if the numerator is divisible by 2 or 3 then we have perfect time. The most common numerators would then be the numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 16 all of which are equally divisible by 2 or 3.

Secondly, we have specific names for the various time signatures used in music. For example; when the numerator is a 2 we call that duple time, when it is 3 – triple time, 4 is quadruple time, 6 is sextuple time, 8 is octuple time or double quadruple time and 16 is double octuple time.

Imperfect Time – When the numerator is divisible by any other number than 2 or 3 it is called imperfect time. Numerators such as 5, 7, 10, 14, 15 or 21 are all considered to be imperfect time signatures. But wait, you say! 10 and 14 are divisible by 2 and 15 and 21 are divisible by 3. Why do we call these numbers imperfect time? Let’s look at the math for a minute.

10 is divisible by 2 which equals 5 which is not divisible by 2 or 3.

14 is also divisible by 2 which equals 7 which is not divisible by 2 or 3.

15 is divisible by 3 which equals 5 which again is not divisible by 2 or 3.

21 is divisible by 3 which equals 7 which is not divisible by 2 or 3.

Hopefully this clears up any confusion that may be surrounding these numbers and their classification of either perfect or imperfect. We will be leaving this concept for a minute and return with more explanations shortly.

Simple and Compound Meter

To make matters even more confusing, there are two important and additional subdivisions to consider when learning about the subject of meter as applied to music. The first is simple time and the second is compound time.

Simple Time – is what most people think about when it comes to time signatures. Simply put and using the 4/4 time signature as the example, in the chart below, we see that this time signature has 4 beats to a measure and a quarter note or its equivalent gets one beat.

Quarter Note Gets One BeatThe full explanation of the 4/4 time signature is in Part 22b of this series.

We can alter the top number of the time signature using any one of the numbers divisible by two. The chart below shows and example of the 8/4 time signature where there are eight beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

Quadruple Plus a Quadruple - Time SignatureBoth the 8 and the 4 are divisible by two consequently we meet the criteria for simple time. Whether we are using eighth notes, sixteenth notes or thirty-second notes, etc., all note values must be equally divisible by 2 satisfying the requirement for both perfect and simple time.

The Lettered Symbols

The lettered symbols are shown in the two charts immediately below. The first one is called Common Time and it is identical in definition to the 4/4 time signature.

Note: Both of these lettered time signature symbols were more commonly used years ago. Modern innovations have all but replaced them however you do see them in music notation even now.

C-Time in Music

Common Time – is often referred to as quadruple time where four quarter notes or their equivalent fill a single measure of music. The Common time symbol is less often used today than the 4/4 time signature symbol. They mean the same thing – there are four beats in a measure of music and each quarter note or its equivalent gets one beat.

2/2 Time Signature in MusicCut Time – Is basically created by numerically splitting the quadruple meter of the 4/4 time signature creating 2/2 time signature, which is sometimes called alla breve in music. Four quarter notes can be placed in a single measure for this time signature as well, however, as the bottom number represents the note value used for each beat is a half note so there are only two beats in each measure under this time signature as opposed to four beats per measure in common time or 4/4 time.


Perfect Time – Simple Meter

Ala breve or 2/2 time signature is represented in this chart

Two beats per measure and a half note gets one beat. This duple time signature is frequently used when composing theater music, fast orchestral music, marches and chants.

Measure in 2/4 Time Signature

Two beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat. This duple time signature is frequently used in Marches and Polkas.

A measure of music using the 3/4 time signature

Three beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat. This triple time signature is frequently used for waltzes.

A measure of music using the 4/4 time signature

Four beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat. The commonly known 4/4 quadruple time signature is used in a variety of music styles including; rock, jazz, country, classical and bluegrass music. It is also seen in pop and modern dance styles as well.

A measure of music using the 3/8 time signature

Three beats per measure and an eighth note gets one beat. This triple meter time signature is twice as fast as the 3/4 time signature and is used in the same and similar song forms when speed is important.

A measure of music using the 6/8 time signature

Six beats per minute and an eighth note gets one beat. This sextuple time signature is used in fast waltzes, marches and double and triple jigs.


All of these commonly used time signatures are classified as perfect time signatures in the simple meter format.


Imperfect Time Signatures

Compound Time – If we were to subdivide the beats in the measure by 3 instead of 2 , in whole or in part, we would then have compound time rather than simple time. The example below shows quintuple time which is a compound time signature. Remember, we are altering the numerators in the time signature to numbers not equally divisible by 2 such as in the case of the 5/4 time signature.

Compound Time Example

When performing the 5/4 time signature we accent certain beats of the measure giving the music a “feel” quite different than when using simple meter. In our example, we split the five beats of this measure into two parts; part one is two beats and part two is three beats, notice the blue colored quarter notes.

Further, we can alter the stress location in compound meters. In this case, the 5/4 time signature can have the stresses fall on beats one and four, in essence reversing the stresses as demonstrated in the chart above. The same applies to all compound meters.

Another example to review demonstrating compound time is the 7/4 time signature as shown in the chart below.

Septuple Time Signature

Septuple time is also a compound time signature where the number of beats in a measure is not equally divided by 2, similar to the quintuple time signature example. Instead of dividing the accents like we did in the quintuple signature, this time we typically divide the accents so they are played on the first and fourth beats as shown in blue. or on the first and fifth beats reversing what is shown in the chart. Musicality is a matter of effective use of the accents and their placement, so, listen carefully to what you are composing.


As a review, all time signatures function the same way. They are constructed using either the letter C, a letter C with a vertical line running through it or it is a fractional looking number. The fractional looking number is not the same as that used in mathematics as it does not have a line separating the two numbers. They are simply stacked upon one another as shown in the charts throughout this article.

For the fractional number, the top number instructs the performer as to how many beats there are in a measure. The symbol is placed on the top two spaces of the five-line four-space staff. The bottom number instructs as to which note value gets one beat. The bottom number is placed on the bottom two spaces of the five-line four-space staff. For reference; the complete explanation for the time signature symbols was provided for in Part 22b.


There are many more time signatures to learn about. This article provides the basis for ongoing learning about them. With that said and with consideration that this article is in Music Theory – Level 2, this concludes Time Signatures – The Symbols – Part 22c.

Up Next

We will continue our review of Time Signatures by looking at various uses of them. Time Signatures – Examples – Part 22d is up next to further your understanding by a quick study from classical music examples of some of these time signatures as well as a more advanced look into the effect of tempo on time signatures.

Please proceed to Time Signatures – Examples – Part 22d.

Note: All charts were produced in Sibelius Notation Software a product from Avid Technologies.

Time Signatures – The Symbols

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