Fractions In Music? Oh No!
Time signatures in music indicate a song’s rhythm. Sometimes called a meter, the time signature tells musicians the number of beats in each measure of music and what kind of note counts as one beat. Written as music, they look like fractions – but fortunately the only math that you need to do upon encountering one of these things is counting!
The top number in a time signature tells musicians the number of beats in each measure of music and the bottom number tells them the kind of note that counts as one beat. The bottom number can be pretty confusing to understand without an illustration, so we’ll use the time signature: “3/4” as an example.
The 3/4 meter tells us that there are three beats per measure. It also tells us that the quarter note counts as one beat. A full measure would therefore contain three quarter notes or any combination of notes that when counted together, create three beats. Depending on how advanced your notation is (and how far you are in your music lessons), you’ll notice that there are some rather unique ways to shorten beats or lengthen them past their original count using ties.
A 4/4 time signature tells us that there are four beats per measure and that the quarter note counts as one beat. A full measure in this meter could contain four quarter notes, a whole note, or two half notes.
Understanding Time Signatures – Common Types
Although time signatures can get pretty complicated as your experience with piano music gets more extensive, the most common are 2/4 (popular in polkas or marches), 3/4 (popular in waltzes, minuets, and country/western ballads), and 4/4 (popular in classical and popular music). By the way, the 4/4 time signature is also denote with a “C”-like symbol:
Dupal time meters indicate two beats per measure, and triple time meters indicate three beats per measure. And the more intricate your piano music gets, the more complicated its can meter get.
For example, marches, orchestra music, and theater music often employ the 2/2 time signature. Some of Brahms’ pieces is played to a 4/2 meter while jigs, and some rock music plays to a 6/8 meter. The 12/8 supports the blues and doo-wop styles. Songs that have no time signature at all have what’s called free time.
Unusual But Creative Meters
Things can really get complicated when musicians switch meters in the middle of a song! But that only makes things interesting. Most songs maintain a regular meter throughout their entirety, but it isn’t uncommon for a small section to switch from a 4/4 meter to a 3/4 meter (and then back again).
You can find the meter of the music that you play in the beginning of the song. It should be located right after the song’s key signature or clef. Just remember that when you play, the first beat of a measure’s meter — that is, the first beat of a series of beats — is the one that’s stressed as a way to help the audience identify a steady rhythm.