Time Signatures: The Big 3

handwritten sheet music

Time signatures are important in music.

Signatures are important. Think about the significance of signatures in history. We know about John Hancock because of his gargantuan signature on the Declaration of Independence. A baseball that was signed by Babe Ruth is extraordinarily valuable. Signatures are important in our daily lives, too. The bank won’t cash a check that hasn’t been signed.

Signatures are important because they identify something or someone. Music has signatures, too. The two music-related signatures are the key signature and the time signature. The key signature identifies the notes that are used in a song. The time signature identifies how time should be counted in the song. This lesson introduces the three most common time signatures. The Big 3 are four-four, six-eight and three-four.

Time signatures are written as one number on top of another and they appear at the beginning of a piece of music. The time signature looks like a fraction but it is not. The time signature does not have a line between the numbers. If you see a time signature written with a line between the numbers, it is incorrect.

Three-four time signature

Three-four time signature

The top number in the time signature tells you how many beats will fit in a measure. The bottom number indicates which note is used to count the beat. If the bottom number is a 2, then a half note gets the beat. If it’s a 4, the quarter note gets the beat. You guessed it… if it’s an 8, the eighth note gets the beat.

Four-four: Wooden

Four-four time is the most common time signature. In fact, it is called “common time”. Probably 80% of the songs you will ever play are written in four-four time. If the drummer in a band would count the song off by clicking his sticks and shouting, “One! Two! Three! Four!”, then the song is in four-four time.

This time signature feels very wooden. It won’t give you splinters, but it is stiff, straight and unbending. You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m as stiff as a board!” That’s how four-four feels. It doesn’t swing much at all.

An example of a simple song in four-four is “When You Say Nothing At All,” written by Keith Whitley and performed by Alison Krauss.

Six-eight: Swingy

Six-eight time shows up every once in a while; it is the second most common time signature. It is referred to as “compound time”, but we won’t cover that in this lesson. This time signature can be identified by its swingy feel. You count a measure of eighth notes in six-eight by saying, “1-2-3, 4-5-6” with a strong emphasis on beat 1 and a lesser emphasis on beat 4. As you count it, you can imagine a grandfather clock’s pendulum swinging back and forth. Beat 1 starts the swing and beat 4 is where the pendulum starts its way back to the beginning. Six-eight has a long phrasing.

A famous song written in six-eight is “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles.

Three-four: Waltz

This is the least common of The Big Three. It can be mistaken four six-eight because it counts in multiples of three. However, it has a short phrasing with a very strong emphasis on the first beat. It counts “1-2-3” and is referred to as waltz time because it is the time signature used when dancing a waltz.

A great example of three-four time is “Hickory Wind” by The Byrds.

How to use time signatures

Whether you are trying to figure out a strum pattern on guitar or are simply attempting to clap along to a song at church, being able to identify the time signature of a song is a valuable skill to have. Knowing the three most common time signatures gives you a great start!