What’s A Time Signature? – One, Two, Three, Four

What’s a time signature? And how do you count along to a time signature? What does everybody mean when they say “count to four”?

It’s hard to make sense of this when you’re just being introduced to time signatures and rhythm in general. A lot of guitarists focus on chords and notes before they focus on their right hand. Understandably so, because chords and notes are really important.

But the guitar, especially the acoustic guitar, can be a percussive instrument as well, so it will be an advantage to at least know how to count along to music, to feel a beat, and understand why it feels that way.

This knowledge applied to your guitar playing will make your chord and notes sound a lot better.

So without further ado, what’s a time signature?

What’s A Time Signature?

Time signatures look like this:

As you can see, there are two numbers, but what do they mean? First, we’ll focus on the number above.

One, two, three, four

The first thing we think about when we hear the word “time” is a clock. A clock is a perfect example of time being divided into smaller periods of time. Into hours, into minutes, into seconds…

When we talk about time in music, we’re going to do the same. We’re going to divide time into smaller amounts of time.

To explain this as simply as possible, I’m going to use audio of a ticking clock.

This clock ticks 60 times a minute, 3600 times an hour, 86400 times a day. If we were to visualize these ticks it would look like this:

In music, we don’t count to 60, to 3600 or to 86400. That would be very impractical, and also very unclear. We always try to keep our number as low as possible. The most common number to count to is four.

If we were to count along with the ticking clock, it would sound like this:

We call these repetitions “measures”. In one measure, we count to four once.

In time signatures, the number above is the number we’re going to be counting towards per measure. We call such counting a “beat”.

Type Of Notes

We now know we’re going to count to four. That’s what the number above told us.

The number below tells us what types of notes we’re going to play on the beat.

But what types of notes are there?

Whole notes (1)

When we play one note per measure, we’re playing whole notes.

This is an audio track of me playing whole notes over our ticking clock.

This is what whole notes look like:

Half notes (2)

When we play two notes per measure, and both notes are equally long, we’re playing half notes.

This is an audio track of me playing half notes over our ticking clock:

This is what half notes look like:

Quarter notes (4)

When we play four notes per measure, and all four notes are equally long, we’re playing quarter notes.

This is an audio track of me playing quarter notes over our ticking clock.

This is what quarter notes look like:

Eighth Notes (8)

When we play eight notes per measure, and all notes are equally long, we’re playing eighth notes.

This is an audio track of me playing eighth notes over our ticking clock:

We’re now playing faster than our beat. To make this easier, we can put an “and” in between our counting. That would sound like this:

This is what eighth notes look like:

We can go even faster than eight notes, we can split notes into sixteen, into thirty-two and even more. For now, we’re gonna keep it at eight,

Whole note: one note per measure
Half note: two notes per measure
Quarter note: four notes per measure
Eighth note: eight notes per measure

Time Signatures

So the number above tells us we’re going to count to four. And the number below has something to do with the types of notes we just talked about.

Let me now finally fully explain this.

When you go back to the audio of the quarter notes, you’ll hear that the guitar notes were played simultaneously with the beat. That means that when we count to four, those counts are quarter notes. One beat is one quarter note.

The number below tells us what type of note a beat is.

A 1 refers to a whole note
A 2 refers to a half note
A 4 refers to a quarter note
An 8 refers to an eighth note

This is mostly important for notation purposes. If you were to write music down, it would be important to be able to give the reader the right information.

I think the number above is a lot more important, especially when you’re a beginning musician. It tells us what number to count to. The number below is a lot more abstract.

The difference between 4/8 and 4/8 looks different but sounds the same. It’s purely a notation difference. The difference between 4/4 and 5/4 is huge. In this case, we’d be counting to five instead of four. This would change the entire groove and feeling of the song.

Beats Per Minute

We’ve been playing along to a clock. A clock ticks 60 times a minute. It’s not a coincidence that we call this tempo 60 BPM. BPM stands for “beats per minute”.

60 BPM is considered to be a slow tempo. 61 BPM is a little faster. You are now playing 61 beats in one minute. The difference is not going to be big. The bigger your number, the faster you’ll be playing. If your tempo is 120 BPM, you’ll be playing double as fast as 60 BPM.

Your counting will now sound like this:

As you can hear that’s a lot faster than before.

You can practice and experiment with this by using a metronome. A metronome is a device that produces a beat by making beeping or clicking sounds, so musicians can keep their tempo. You can insert whatever BPM you want to play music to and it will make you hear the right tempo.

You can find metronomes everywhere online. I recommend downloading a free app called “The Metronome” by Soundbrenner. It’s easy to use and has a lot of great features. If you don’t want to download anything you can visit this site: Metronome online.

Outro

Practicing time signatures can be really easy. Try to tap your feet along with the clicks of the metronome. Being able to tap your feet along with the music tells that you’re aware of the groove. When your body moves along to the groove, it will be easier to play in time, and it will also sound a lot natural.

The next time you’re listening to music, try to tap your feet along to the groove. Then try to count along. Try to discover the beat. I think this is the easiest way to build awareness for time signatures.

Some parts of this lesson were quite theoretical. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

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