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Illustrated Tour of Sheet Music: Part One

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Time Signatures & Meter
Different time signatures.

Common time can be written 4/4, or with a C-shaped symbol.

Image © Brandy Kraemer

Understanding Time Signatures

A time signature is a fraction found at the beginning of a piece of music, after the clef and key signature. Time signatures regulate rhythm by organizing beats in two ways:


  • The top number shows how many beats occur in each measure.

  • The bottom number shows the length of the beats: A 4 means each beat is a quarter note long; a 2 indicates a half note, etc.

Therefore, a 4/4 time signature has four beats per measure, with each beat equalling the length of a quarter note. A 3/4 time signature has three quarter-note beats per measure.

Common Time

4/4 time is also called “common time” because, you guessed it, it’s so common. You’ll see it a lot, so keep in mind:


  1. It may be written 4/4, or with a c-shaped half-circle (this symbol does not stand for common time; learn its true meaning).

  2. It’s also called “quadruple meter” or “imperfect time.”

  3. Cut common time is represented by the signature 2/2, or with a symbol similar to a cent sign. Cut time changes the rhythmic feel, but is mathematically equal to 4/4 meter.

Time signatures organize beats, but the speed of a song depends on its tempo.

►  Time Signature & Rhythm Quiz


See More Musical Symbols:
Staff & Barlines    ■Note Lengths     ■Articulation Marks    ■Repeat Signs
The Grand Staff      ■Dotted Notes      ■Dynamics & Volume      ■Segno & Coda Signs
■Time Signatures       ■Accidentals        ■Key Signatures      ■Pedal Marks
Tempo Commands     ■Piano Chords         ■Music Rests          ■8va & Octave Commands


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