By Michael John Sanchez

You will need to understand time signature to play the fiddle. Each measure in music is separated by barlines and is organized in such a way that you have a specific number of notes in each measure. But how do you know exactly how many notes can go into each of the measures?

The answer is by looking at the time signature, which is an indication of rhythm that’s in the form of a fraction. The bottom number shows the division of the whole note, and the top number shows the amount of beats that you should include in each measure.

Starting out with 4/4 (common) time

Look at “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which shows the time signature in a musical piece.


As you can see, the number 4 appears twice, one sitting on top of the other. The 4 on the bottom means that there are four quarter notes or four beats in each measure. The 4 on top means that there are four beats in the measure.

Do you notice that each measure satisfies this requirement? If there were three or five quarter notes in any of these measures, the music would be unbalanced and not written properly.

When you see 4/4, this is typically called 4/4 time. Four quarter notes per measure do satisfy this requirement, but you can also have different rhythms/notes that still equal four beats in total.

Here are some potential combinations of notes that can help fill the requirement of a certain amount of beats per measure.

Two eighth notes = One beat

One quarter note = One beat

One quarter rest = One beat

One half note = Two beats

You can take any of these notes and put them into a measure, but the total beat count in each measure must match the top number in the time signature. “Cotton Eyed Joe” is in 4/4 time. This means there are four beats in every measure.

[Credit: By Michael Sanchez]
Credit: By Michael Sanchez

It should take the same amount of time for you to play measure 1 as it takes to play measures 2, 3, and 4.

For the song “Cotton Eyed Joe,” make sure you use the whole bow for the quarter notes and half the bow for the eighth notes. If you’re at the tip of the bow and you’re about to play eighth notes, play them halfway from the tip to the mid-bow. Don’t go all the way back to the bottom sticker at the frog, as this is unnecessary.

You can play eighth notes either at the bottom half of the bow or at the top half of the bow. Every other eighth note group you find in “Cotton Eyed Joe” is played on opposite parts of the bow.

Varying time signatures

You won’t always find 4/4 time in music because music can be organized in many different ways. The time signature gives the pulse of the music, or the meter. This is chosen by the composer of the song, who wants the music to have a certain rhythmic pattern.

For example, many times you’ll see music organized in 2/4 time, which means there are two beats in a measure (or cut time). This is often done because the piece is written to be played fast.

Other times you may see the time signature 3/4 because there are a lot of melodies that fit well in groups of three. This means you’d count to 3 when counting each quarter note in a measure instead of 2 or 4. Waltzes are examples of pieces that are often written in 3/4 time.

Take a look at this line of music. The first four measures are in 4/4 time, while the last four measures are in 2/4 time.

[Credit: By Michael Sanchez]
Credit: By Michael Sanchez

Most of the time, you’ll find music written in only one time signature, although there are exceptions. If the music changes in meter (the time signature changes), you’ll see a different time signature marking in the music. Everything that follows from that point on will be in that new meter until the end of the piece or until you see another time change.