How to Count Out Common Time Signatures to Play the Piano or Keyboard

By Holly Day, Jerry Kovarksy, Blake Neely, David Pearl, Michael Pilhofer

In music, a time signature tells you the meter of the piece you’re playing on your piano or keyboard. Each measure of music receives a specified number of beats. Composers decide the number of beats per measure early on and convey such information with a time signature, or meter.

The two numbers in the time signature tell you how many beats are in each measure of music. In math, the fraction for a quarter is 1/4, so 4/4 means four quarters. Thus, each measure with a time signature of 4/4 has four quarter note beats; each measure with a 3/4 meter has three quarter note beats; and each measure of 2/4 time has two quarter note beats.

Please keep in mind that 4/4 meter doesn’t mean that each measure has only four quarter notes. It means each measure has only four beats. These beats may contain half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, rests, whatever the composer wants — but all note and rest values must combine to equal the top number (or numerator) of the time signature.


Common time: 4/4 meter

The most common meter in music is 4/4. It’s so common that its other name is common time and the two numbers in the time signature are often replaced by the letter C.

In 4/4, the stacked numbers tell you that each measure contains four quarter note beats. So, to count 4/4 meter, each time you tap the beat, you’re tapping the equivalent of one quarter note.

To hear an example of 4/4 meter, listen to, “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Notice how the beat pattern of 4/4 meter creates an emphasis on beats 1 and 3, which are downbeats (although beat 1 has the strongest emphasis). Beats 2 and 4 are upbeats. In many rock, R&B, and hip-hop songs, the upbeats are accented — this is commonly known as a backbeat.

As you listen to the track, tap your foot on 1 and 3 (the downbeats), and clap on 2 and 4 (the upbeats).

Feel free to check out the sheet music as well, right here. Although you may not know the notes of the staff yet — it can’t hurt to look at the music as you listen, to get a feel for it if nothing else. It’s also fine to simply tap your foot on the downbeats and clap on the upbeats.


Waltz time: 3/4 meter

In the second most common meter, 3/4, each measure has three quarter note beats. Of course, this still doesn’t mean that only quarter notes exist in this meter. You may have one half note and one quarter note, or you may have six eighth notes, but either way, the combination equals three quarter note beats.

In 3/4 meter, beat 1 of each measure is the downbeat, and beats 2 and 3 are the upbeats. It’s quite common, though, to hear accents on the second or third beats, like in many country music songs.

Another name for 3/4 meter is waltz time because of the down-up-up beat pattern used for waltzing. Listen to this example of 3/4 meter, “The Beautiful Blue Danube.” Notice the emphasis on beat 1 of each measure. Tap your foot on the downbeat, and clap on the upbeats. You could say that 3/4 was probably composer Johann “Waltz King” Strauss’s favorite meter.


March time: 2/4 meter

Chop a 4/4 meter in half and you’re left with only two quarter note beats per measure. Not to worry, though, because two beats per measure is perfectly acceptable. In fact, you’ll find 2/4 meter in most famous marches. The rhythm is similar to the rhythm of your feet when you march: “left-right, left-right, 1-2, 1-2.” You start and stop marching on the downbeat — beat 1.

Check out this good example of 2/4 meter. It’s a famous dance by Jacques Offenbach called “Can Can.” Feel free to march or “do the Can Can” as you listen.


6/8 time

If you notice that a time signature of 6/8 doesn’t have a “4” in the bottom (denominator) position, you’re no doubt already thinking that it can’t be a meter based on quarter notes. If you’re thinking that it might be a meter based on eighth notes, you’re right. 6/8 meter is a grouping of six eighth notes per measure.

Like the waltz, beats in 6/8 meter are grouped in threes, but there are two groups. 6/8 has an added down-up beat pattern on the first eighth note of each group — beats 1 and 4.

Showing the emphasis using italics, you count a measure of 6/8 with one count for each eighth note beat, as follows: One, two, three, four, five, six. Beat 1 is a stronger downbeat than 4, so this beat pattern can feel like two broader beats (down-up), each with its own down-up-up pattern within.

Here is an example of 6/8 meter. Tap your right foot on beat 1, tap your left foot on beat 4, and clap the upbeats (2, 3, 5, 6).