Our guide to learning (basic) time signatures

One and two and three and four and.

Keeping time is the way music knows where to go. It’s why drummers count down before a song, and why you’re able to snap along to your favorite tunes.

Every song has timing, but not every time signature is as easy to find as counting to four. The best way to learn is to find examples in popular music, so here they come! But first...


Every time signature has two numbers: one on top, one on the bottom. The number at the top represents the number of beats in a bar of music. The number on the bottom represents the kind of notes used in the bar. 4/4 meter, for example, would use quarter notes (the bottom number), four times (the top number). 6/8 would use eighth notes (bottom number), six times per measure (bottom number).


e.g. Metallica "Enter Sandman"

This is the most common type of meter — it’s even called “Common Time” and often represented as a C on a music staff. 4/4 is used in most popular music because of its ease to follow, and it feels the most natural to our ears.


1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4...


e.g. The Beatles "She's Leaving Home"

This is also called a “Waltz.” Similar to 4/4 meter, 3/4 also uses quarter notes, but only allows three of them per musical bar. It feels quicker and swingier than Common Time, and is often used in blues and country music.


1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3...


e.g. Alabama Shakes "Boys & Girls"

This gets trickier. Unlike the last two examples, 6/8 timing uses eighth notes instead of quarter notes (bottom number). Each musical bar contains six of these eighth notes. The effect is very similar to 3/4 timing — but don’t confuse them! 6/8 repeats after six counts, not three!


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

And remember:
"Friends don't let friends clap on 1 & 3"

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