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Learning to Read Music 1: Lesson 4

 

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Learning To Read Music Tutorial 1

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The next thing to learn about rhythmic notation is the time signature.

The time signature of a piece tells you how many notes are counted per measure, and the rhythmic value/time duration of the notes in the measure. This sounds more complicated than it really is. Time signatures are set up like fractions: the number on top is the number of notes per measure, and the bottom number is the rhythmic value/time duration of those notes.

For example, the time signature you will most frequently encounter is 4/4. The top 4 means you will count to 4 for each measure of music. The bottom 4 is similar to the fractional use of a 4 as a "denominator" (as in 1/4 or one-fourth). That means the note value that gets one count is a 1/4 note, or a quarter note. Put simply, 4/4 means we have 4 (top number) quarter notes (bottom number) per measure. This is known as common time.

The top note can be any integer, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. The bottom note can only be part of this sequence: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on. This relates to the fact that there are only these types of note values:

1 is a whole note
2 is a half note
4 is a quarter note
8 is a eighth note
16 is a sixteenth note, and so on

So, for example:

3/4 is 3 quarter notes per measure and counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. Every quarter note gets one count.
3/2 is 3 half notes per measure and can also be counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. But every half note gets one count, quarter notes would get half a count being half as long as half notes.
5/4 is 5 quarter notes per measure and counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. Every quarter note gets one count.
6/8 is 6 eighth notes per measure and counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on. Every eighth note gets one count, quarter notes would get 2 counts being twice as long as eighth notes.

The time signature of a piece will give it a very distinctly rhythmic sound, style or "flavor". For example, a waltz sounds the way it does because it is in some form of 3, like 3/4 or 3/8 time. Some modern classical, jazz fusion and thrash metal sounds "disjointed" or uneven because they are in unusual time signatures, 5/4, 13/8, 17/16 and so on. The vast majority of listeners are not musicians. They don't care about the time signature, they only want to be able to "tap their foot" in order to follow and enjoy the music. This is why most music is in some form of 2 or 4, the most straightforward and "even" time to count; think of it as the beat you tap your foot to when you listen to music.

The important thing to take from this is that a piece is not automatically good or bad because it is "complicated" and has tricky time signatures. A piece is likewise not automatically good or bad because it is "simple" and uses common time signatures that non-musicians can easily follow, understand and enjoy.

The time signature is simply another characteristic component of music, every piece has at least one & the best time signature to use is the one that best achieves the composer's intention.

This image shows various time signatures. Note that the time signature is normally indicated at the beginning of the piece. It is only stated again if it changes.

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