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Understanding Simple and Compound Time Signatures

Part of the Music Theory For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Written music always contains a time signature, which looks like a fraction and is found at the beginning of a piece of music. In the time signature, the upper number represents the number of beats per measure, and the lower one represents the time value of each beat. You'll encounter the two following main types of time signatures:

  • Simple: With simple time signatures, the beat of a piece of music can be broken down into two-part rhythms. Simple time signatures are the easiest to count, because a one-two pulse in a piece of music feels the most natural to a listener and a performer. Common examples of simple time signatures are 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 3/8, and 2/2.

  • Compound: In compound time signatures, the beat is broken down into three-part rhythms. The top number is evenly divisible by 3, with the exception of time signatures where the top number is 3. Also, each beat is divided into three components, creating a one-two-three pulse. Common examples of compound time signatures are 6/8, 12/8, and 9/4.

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