Time Signature – How to Read Sheet Music
Pay Attention to Time Signature
Some frequently used time signatures:
- 4/4 (also written as “c,” for Common Time)
- 2/2 (also written as “¢” for Cut Time)
Time signatures determine two things:
- Top number: How many beats in a measure
- Bottom number: Which note counts as a beat
So, in 4/4 time, there are 4 (top number) beats in the measure, and the quarter note (bottom number) gets the beat. Said another way: 4 quarter notes in a measure. In 2/4 time, there are 2 quarter notes in a measure. In 2/2 time, there are two half notes in a measure.
But, you’re asking, isn’t 2/2 just another way of saying 4/4? Mathematically speaking, yes it is – either way you end up with 4 quarter notes per measure. The difference is the number of beats per measure.
Composers have different reasons for using 4/4 vs. 2/2. Usually pieces (or sections of pieces) written in 2/2 are played relatively fast, so keeping time in this way gives a certain feel to the way you play the music (counting only 2 beats per measure instead of 4).
One way we’ve seen it often used is when you have a passage in 4/4 that gradually speeds up and eventually becomes 2/2. This helps because the measures are now going by so fast that it would be too difficult to count 4 beats in each one, even though in terms of musical phrasing there is still just as much “stuff” in each measure (which is why you don’t go to 2/4 which would cut the phrases in half because you get only 2 quarter notes in each measure). Don’t worry if this isn’t completely clear right now. You’ll get a feel for it as you play a variety of pieces.
The good news is that the relationships between the values of all the notes always stay the same regardless of time signature. For example, a half note is always and forever worth 2 quarter notes.
One more thing to remember: the bottom number is always an even number. So you’ll never see a time signature like 4/5.
Go to the next lesson, about Key Signature.
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