Time Signatures Explained…Those Little Fractions

Do you need those time signatures explained? A lot of people do, They tell you all about the basic beat of the music. This is the basic beat and not necessarally the rhythm of a song.

A song can have rhythms within the basic beat. Also the melody will have its own rhythm or timing.

Similar to what a drummer does with all the different drums.

The time signature is similar to how the drummer plays his bass drum usually on beats one and three in 4/4 time, like a metronome for everyone.

This will vary with different songs and time signatures.


Measures are the way you divide the staff into sections so you can read the music much easier than without.

The time signatures tell you how many beats each measure gets and what note gets a full beat.


Notes are represented as a fraction in the time signature. The bottom number tells you what kind of note gets a full beat.

Imagine a 1 for the top number when you read the bottom number.

A 2 would be a half note, a 4 would be a quarter note and an 8 would be an eighth note.

These are probably the only numbers you will see on the bottom of the fraction.

The Fraction

Top of Fraction

Number of Beats per Measure

Bottom of Fraction

What Note gets a Whole Beat

Common Time Signatures Explained

The below key signatures mean the same thing. Because 4/4 is so common they use a C instead of a fraction.

This is your common 1-2-3-4 beat that you have been listening to since childhood.


In 4/4 time the first beat is played the loudest with the 3rd beat getting a smaller accent than the first.

Time Signatures Explained

Cut Time – “Alla Breve”

This time signature is used for a fast paced songs. Having a half note as your full beat makes it easier to read and count 2 beats rather than 4 beats at a faster pace.

Cut time will still sound and look the same as common time. It’s just counted different

It looks like 4/4 but quarter notes get a half beat in cut time.

These both mean the same thing like the common above but only two beats per measure with the half note getting a whole beat.

This would be counted 1-2 for each measure.

3/4 Time

This is the next most popular time. This could be referred to as a Waltz timing


The Quarter Note gets a Full Beat

3/8 Time


The Eighth Note gets a Full Beat

This would sound the same as 3/4 time it’s just that the eighth note would get a full beat.

The single flag on the note means it’s an eighth note.

6/8 – 12/8 – 5/4

These three you will see but not as often. The 12/8 is common for blues though. It has a shuffle feel to it.

These would all be counted similar to the samples above.

The 5/4 is a combination of 2/4 and 3/4 combined and usually counted like 3/4 and then like 2/4.

The song “Hypnotized” by “Fleetwood Mac” is a 5/4 time song

I hope you found this page useful.