How To Read Music

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How To Read Music

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CHAPTER 5

The Time Signature


The time signature tells us two things: how many beats are in a measure and which note is worth one beat. Time signatures always appear at the beginning of sheet music but keep your eyes peeled as they can also appear throughout the song.

Here’s what the time signature looks like when written at the beginning of a piece of music.

4/4 time on the treble clef with no notes

How to Read Time Signatures

Time signatures always have two numbers, with one written on top of the other.

  • The top number defines the number of beats in a measure. If you see a 2 that means there are two beats in every measure while a 4 means there are four beats.
  • The bottom number refers to the note that is worth a single beat. If you see a 4 that means a quarter note is worth one beat, an 8 means an eighth note, and a 2 the half note. We say this note “gets the beat.”

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Common Time Signatures

4/4 Time

symbol for 4/4 time

4/4 time (spoken out loud as “four four time”) is also known as common time. In 4/4 time there are four beats in a measure and the quarter note gets the beat.

To keep time you will count 1, 2, 3, 4 | 1, 2, 3, 4 | 1, 2, 3, 4 | … every quarter note.

2/4 Time

symbol for 2/4 time

2/4 time has two beats per measure with the quarter note getting the beat.

To keep time you will count 1, 2 | 1, 2 | 1, 2 | … every quarter note.

6/8 Time

symbol for 6/8 time

6/8 time has six beats per measure with the eighth note getting the beat.

To keep time you will count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 | 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 | 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 | … every eighth note.

2/2 Time

symbol for 2/2 time

2/2 time, also known as cut-time, has two beats in a measure with the half note getting the beat.

To keep time you will count 1, 2 | 1, 2 | 1, 2 | … every half note.

4/4 and 2/2 time, which we said above can also be called common and cut time, have special symbols that are occasionally used.

Here is the symbol for common time:

symbol for common time

This is the symbol for cut time, which is the common time symbol with a vertical line through it:

symbol for cut time

There are many more time signatures than we’ve seen so far, some of which are rather more complex. This guide was created to serve as an introduction to reading music, so we’ll avoid the more complicated time signatures like irregular time and mixed meter.

Now that you’ve got the basics, let’s head to the next chapter and learn about sharps and flats.