There are two types of time signatures: regular and irregular. In this article, we will talk about the first type. Also, you will learn how to identify the time signature of a song only by listening to it.

As we reviewed in the previous article, the number at the bottom of the time signature indicates the unit and the superior, how many units will be in each measure.


4/4 = 4 quarter notes per measure

3/4 = 3 quarter notes per measure

6/8 = 6 eighth notes per measure

9/8 = 3 groups of 3 eighth notes per measure

These are only a few examples, there are many types of measures.

In a nutshell, the regular time signatures have a superior number divisible by 2, 3, or 4.

The ones that can be divisible by 2 are called binary. The ones divisible by 3 are called ternary, and the ones divisible by 4 are quaternary.

As you know, four is divisible by 2, so they can look the same. Those time signatures have some differences that impact how the song feels in terms of rhythm. We will review this in more detail shortly.

The most used time signature nowadays

You can probably guess that the most used time signature nowadays is 4/4 in many different genres of music (salsa, hip-hop, funk, electronic, pop, etc.).

Now, let's think about 2/2 compared to 4/4.

2/2 = two half notes (4 quarters) per measure

4/4 = 4 quarter notes per measure

Looks like the same, right?

Well, they are not. Although 2/2 is hardly used nowadays, it is a time signature that allows you to play at a faster tempo. Tempos in which, if you were in 4/4, it would feel a little bit off ๐Ÿƒ.

If you want to go deeper into the subject, I recommend this video:

While 4/4 is the most commonly used time signature, there are other types. Many, in fact. And they exist to give a different feel to the music we compose.

Let's listen to it!

This is 4/4:

This is 3/4:

This is 7/4:

Changing the unit of time or the compound time signature

This type of time signature arises from the need to have a subdivision of 3 per beat. In other words, each beat in the measure would have three sub-beats.
We could use the triplet in a 4/4 time signature to generate the same rhythmic effect, but it is not practical.

In other words, each beat in a measure in x/4 would be sub-divided in a binary form. And a beat in a measure for a measure in x/8 would be sub-divided in a ternary form, which is what adds a swing feel to a song ๐Ÿ•บ๐Ÿฝ.

Symbolically it would be represented in this way:

The unit of tempo for 4/4 is a quarter (2 eighth notes), and the unit of tempo for 3/8 is a dotted quarter (3 eighth notes). Remember that the tempo and the time signature are not the same thingsโ—

Perhaps you will understand this better with an example.

6/8 vs 3/4

You could think those time signatures are the same thing. Spoiler alert: they are not. Although both have six octaves notes per measure, 3/4 has 3 beats, and 6/8 has two beats. You will notice that when you listen to the accent in the bars. If you don't remember how the accents work, you can check it out in this article.

Now I want to talk about 12/8.

This type of measure became popular with Blues. It's a genre that has swing and that's why it's the ideal time signature.

Let's listen to an example:

You could tell me: Muddy Waters counted to four at the beginning of the song! And yes, that's true. The way to count in these types of measures is in 4, but considering that the division is ternary (3). Therefore, it would be 12 notes in total per measure ๐Ÿ’.

This is another example of a song in 12/8:

12/8 vs 6/8

These 2 types of time signatures are very similar. You might think 12/8 is two 6/8 measures, but they are not. They have a different feel.

How to differentiate those?

Listen to the accent!

However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them through the drums or percussions. So I recommend that you look for other references to identify when the time signature changes as the harmonic changes.

Let's listen to this song:

In this case, you know that it is in 6/8, not 12/8, because the guitar makes a harmonic change every 6 beats.

Do the counting exercise and you'll realize I'm not fooling you ๐Ÿ™ˆ.

How to recognize the time signature of a song

The best way to do this is with your palms ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿฟ . You need to listen to the song carefully, first find the pulse clapping, then find the accent, and finally the subdivision of each pulse.

The pulse and the accent will tell you how many beats there are per measure. The subdivision will let you know what kind of beat it is. Remember, the way to get better is to practice, practice, practice.

Also, I have a little tech hack ๐Ÿคซ that will make your life easier. On this page, you can enter the song's name, and voila! You will know all the information about the time signature.

What I recommend is to use both resources. Listen to a lot of music, try to discover the time signatures by yourself, and check it out on the page I've shared with you.

That's all for today! I hope you've enjoyed this article and learned a lot.

See you next time,