Last time we talked about rhythm, remember? Well, the time signature is how we indicate rhythm in music notation. The time signature tells you how the rhythm in a song is and how the beats are divided. The time signature is always at the beginning of the score, next to the clef. The symbol of the time signature is composed of a number over another number. In this article, I will explain to you what those numbers stand for.

What do the numbers in the time signature mean?

Before we start with this, let's talk about the measure. A bar is the metric of music made up of time units that we organize in groups. In simpler words, it is the structure where we are going to organize our musical ideas. You can think of the bars as blocks in which you will divide your song.

Similarly, measures are like the sentences in a paragraph. The time signature will tell you how many words are in each sentence and their duration. It will tell you how many and how long the beats are in the measures.

Having said that, hands-on!

First, let's look at the number below. This number will indicate the unit, that is, the duration of the beats in each bar.

Remember the graph of the proportions between the different types of rhythmic notes that we saw in the last article? Here it is again.

As you can see, 1/4 is a quarter note. Therefore, if you see a 4/4 metric, it means that the unit of measure of the beat will be a quarter. Think about it this way: 4 x 1/4.
And this happens with all the other notes. The number 8 means that the unit of the beat is an octave. And so on.

Now, the number above tells you how many units will be in each bar. In other words, if you see 4/4, it means that there will be four quarters in each measure. If you see 2/4, it means that there will be two quarters in each bar. If you see 12/8, it means that there are 12 eight notes in each measure.

Remember that rhythmic notes have proportionality between them. That means each has a value proportional to another (e.g., one whole equals two halves or four fourths). To know the duration in terms of time, you have to check the tempo. If the unit of measure is a quarter in a song, because the time signature is 4/4, and the BPM=60, it means that each quarter will last 1 second. If the time signature is 4/4 and the BPM=120, it means the quarter will last 0.5 seconds and so on.

Excellent! You now know how to interpret the time signature.

To sum up

The top number tells you how many notes per measure, and the bottom number tells you the value of each note (the type of note we will use to measure the pulse).

Final thoughts

You will see that in terms of rhythm and other aspects of music, the most important thing to understand and take into account is that there are proportionalities. And that's what rhythm is all about. So don't worry about learning everything by heart. Instead, it is better to make an effort to understand the theoretical rule in its simplest sense. Taking into account the proportionality, you will understand that same rule in more complex forms.

I think this is enough information for now. I recommend that you re-read this article, take notes and process everything you learned today. In the upcoming article, we will review the most common time signatures.

See you soon!