music guide


Time Signatures

                  signatureAt the beginning of every piece of music (apart from some really old and the really modern stuff) you'll see two numbers - one on top of the other.

The purpose of this is to tell you the counting which needs to be done when going through a piece of music.

The top number tells you how many of the notes indicated by the bottom number there are in a bar. In the example above the time signature is 4-4 (four x crotchets or equivalent in every bar). If the top number was three and the bottom number a four then it would be 3-4 time (three x crotchets or equivalent in every bar).


All(ish) music is split up into bars separated by barlines (indicated by the purple arrows in the picture above). Each bar contains the same number of beats, in this case 4 (unless the time signature changes - we'll deal with that later on) - the number of what sort of beat is given in the time signature. Thus 4-4 time tells us that each bar adds up to four (the top number) crotchets (the bottom number) i.e. each bar has four beats each of which lasts the same as a minim. You can see this below where I've couloured the contents of each bar red or blue - they all add up to four (unless I've got my maths wrong!)

All the notes in each bar add up to 4

If a conductor is conducting four in the bar each time the baton goes straight down (indicating the first beat of the bar) he will be referring to the first note of each bar - makes things much easier to follow if you get lost! (trust me - you will! - We all do!)

If you have two on the bottom line then you are dealing with minims (two minims = a semibreve) while if you have four on the bottom then you're dealing with crotchets (four crotchets = a semibreve), if you have an eight - quavers, etc etc

If you have an odd number on the bottom then something has gone wrong somewhere - you should only be encountering 2, 4, 8, 16 etc on the bottom.

Some examples

Below are some examples of different time signatures for the same piece of music (Baa Baa Black Sheep) and what they do to that music - the first (4-4) is the proper time signature. I've put lines over the beats which will be "beaten" by the conductor (and double lines where I can't split them up).

Example 1

Time signature: 4-4

This is how Baa Baa Black Sheep should look - nice and neat with four crothcets in each bar.

the 4-beatThe conductor will beat four crotchets in each bar like this - each time the baton goes straight down you know that it is the first beat of each bar - so that is what you should be singing at the time. But each beat will be one crotchet.

The speed the conductor takes a piece of music is up to him/her - they are in control and you have to follow them otherwise chaos will occur.

Please note at this stage the number 5 on the left hand side - you'll see this a lot in music - all it is doing is counting the bars so that, during rehearsals, if the conductor says that we'll begin singing from bar 7 (or rather, in larger pieces, bar 197!) - you don't have to start counting the bars from the beginning!

Example 2

2 minims in the bar

Changing the time signature to 2-2 has no effect on the look of the music (in this case) but there are two minims in each of these bars rather than four crotchets - honest! (And I don't know why I got a blue crotchet on the bottom line before you ask! It doesn't sinify anything - it just crept in somehow)

the 2-beatThis time the conductor will only beat two beats in a bar but each beat will be a minim long (ie two crotchets) so, in this example, by the time the conductor has finished the first beat you should have sung the first two crotchets. On the second beat you'll sing the second two crotchets and on the third you'll sing the next four quavers (four quavers = 1 minim) and so on.

2-2 is often used as "marching" music (1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2.......... left, right, left, right etc)

Example 3

2 crotchets to the bar

Changing the time signature from 4-4 to 2-4 means that we have halved the length of each bar - you can see that the effect of this is to double the number of bars we have from 8 to 16.

the 2-beatThis time the conductor will move his/her baton in the same way as in Example 2 but because they are beating two crotchets in each bar rather, than two minims, they will beat it twice as fast (two crotchets = one minim) to keep the music going at the same speed. If they beat at the same speed as in Example 2 then the music will only go at half the speed.


Example 4

3 crotchets to the bar

If we change the time signature from 4-4 to 3-4 things start to get a little bit funky. This time you have a four on the the
                  3-beatbottom so we are taling about crotchets but we only have three in each bar. You can see that the music doesn't really fit the timing any more and a minim has had to be split over bars 5 and 6. We've even had to stick in a rest at the end because the total number of beats in the song doesn't add up to a multiple of three.

The conductor will beat three cotchets in each bar. To get an idea of 3-4 time think "waltz" time - 1 2 3 - 1 2 3 - 1 2 3 etc

Example 5

6 quavers to each bar

OK so things got too complicated for me to put the blue bars over the notes any more but with a bit of luck you are getting the message now. As we now have an 8 on the bottom line the conductor will be beating the number of quavers in each bar - and there will be six of these in each bar. On the face of thing it doesn't look much different from the
                  3-beat3-4 in Example 5 but it does have an effect on the way the music is written - look at bars 2 and 9 - the quavers are split into two groups of three.

The conductor, istead of trying to find a shape with six points and risk looking like somebody drowning will beat 3 twice for each bar. Each beat will be a quaver. Again, the conductor will have to beat twice as fast as in Example 4 (3-4) to keep the music at the same speed as two quavers = one crotchet.

Example 6

7 crotchets in a bar

Now I'm in trouble. This music is written with seven crotchets in each bar! You can see that this is totally wrong for this piece of music and it doesn't seem to "fit" at all - but it should sound (roughly) the same as 4-4. As for the conducting - I'll leave that up to your conductor to sort out but it could be a combination of Example 1 AND Example 4 to add up to seven beats