Basic Music Theory - Time Signatures in Popular Music

Time Signatures

Part of understanding how a ryhthm will sound involves understanding the stresses of the rythm - based on the meter or Time Signature of the piece.

All music uses a Time Signature. The time signature of a piece gives you a little information about the piece you are about to play. Whilst there are many time signatures, you'll most often see these:

3/4 Time Signature

3/4 Time Signature

4/4 Time Signature

4/4 Time Signature

In addition to these simple time signatures - you'll see some more esoteric ones like these:


We show time signatures as two numbers stacked. The top number tells you the amount of beats in one bar - the bottom tells you the duration of those notes. Together, that tells you how long a bar of music will be.

So - 2/4 means two notes of a quarter note duration, 6/8 means six notes of an eighth note duration to fill one measure.

4/4 Time Signature

This is the most common Time Signature by far. In fact, it is so common that you'll often see it depicted by a large C instead of the numbers. The C stands for common and looks like this:


To show how the time signature determines the length of a bar, here's some examples:

Simple 4/4 Beat Pattern

Simple pattern showing 4/4 measures.

Simple pattern showing 4/4 measures.

Medium 4/4 Pattern

Slightly more difficult pattern, showing rests and different note lengths - still adding up to 4 notes per measure.

Slightly more difficult pattern, showing rests and different note lengths - still adding up to 4 notes per measure.

Complex 4/4 Pattern

Complex timing - using tuplet notes!

Complex timing - using tuplet notes!

3/4 Time Signature

3/4 is a lot less common and tends to get used in older pieces of music and waltzes. The way that the stressed beat falls makes it perfect for the rhythm of a waltz or a ballad.

Songs like Happy Birthday, The Times They Are A-Changin and Greensleeves are in 3/4.

If you listen to the beat in those songs - you can really hear how the rhythm stress changes the entire feel of the song.

Other Time Signatures

Time signatures changes the feeling of the track - the strong beats push the track forward. In a 3/4 measure, we have 1 as the strong beat, whereas 2 and 3 are not strong. In 6/8 measure, we have 1 as strong beat and 4 as less strong beat; the other beats aren't emphasized.

Take a listen to this song by Pink Floyd called 'Money'

The official promo video for 'Money' by Pink Floyd, taken from the album 'The Dark Side Of The Moon' Originally released in 1973, 'The Dark Side of The Moon' became Pink Floyd's first number 1 album in the US, remaining on the chart for 741 weeks between 1973 and 1988.

This song has a completely different feel to most other songs - mainly due to the time signature and stresses of the beat.

Irregular Examples

Complex time signatures do exist - they sound quite strange to the unaccustomed ear!

Here's a couple of very famous examples.


A time signature is a handy device that lets you know where to emphasize a beat in a rhythmic pattern to shift the feeling of a piece of music. If you'd like any further help with theory - let me know! I'm always looking for local and online students. Please get in contact with me to arrange a lesson.