Robert Estrin - piano expert
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What Does a Time Signature Mean? How to Read Time Signatures

Easy-to-understand lesson about time signatures and how to interpret them

Released on June 26, 2013

  
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Video Transcription

Hello, I'm Robert Estrin with LivingPianos.com and VirtualSheetMusic.com. Today's question is what does a time signature tell you? Well, if you look at a piece of music at the very beginning, they almost always have two numbers, one over the other one. It almost looks like a fraction. You might have 4/4 time or 3/4 time, and this has a very important implications as to the timing of the piece. For example, Fur Elise is in 3/4 time.

Well, 3/4 time. The top number is easy. It tells you there are three beats in each measure, but what is the bottom number? Sometimes, I call it the mystery number because it's surprising how many students don't know what the bottom number means. We're going to break it down for you, and you'll know exactly what the time signature of both numbers tell you. The top number, if it's three it means there are three beats in each measure. You will count up to three. The number of notes, the beats will always add up to three in each box of music. If it's 4/4 time then there are four beats and you count in four, etc. It can be any number. You could even have seven up there or 12, and that's how many beats are in each measure of music.

The bottom number is a little bit different. The bottom number stands for the kind of note getting one beat. That's right. Now, how does this work? Let's talk about this. A whole note would be number one. A half note would be number two. A quarter note would be four, just like fractions. An eighth note would be eight. If you had a four on the bottom, the four stands for the quarter note. 4/4 time where four is on the top and four is on the bottom, the top four tells you there are four beats in each measure. The bottom four, once again, tells you the kind of note getting one beat. The four stands for the quarter note gets one beat. You gotta get your head around that.

At first, it seems a little counterintuitive. It doesn't tell you that a note gets four beats. No, it always stands for the kind of note that gets one beat. If you had an eight on the bottom, like 3/8 time, the top number always tells you, yes, there are three beats in each measure. And the eight on the bottom tells you the kind of note getting one beat. The eighth note would get one beat. If a 16 was on the bottom, a sixteenth note would get one beat. If a two was on the bottom, a half note would get one beat. And a very unusual time signature with a one on the bottom, like 4/1 time would tell you there are four beats in a measure and a whole note gets one beat. Theoretically possible.

This is it. One thing that you would never see is 4/3 time or 4/7 time. Why? Because there is no three note or third note and there's no seventh note. The bottom number was going to be a 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 because those are all the different note values possible. All right. I hope this clears things up for some of you. Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin with LivingPianos.com and VirtualSheetMusic.com as well. See you next time.
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Zuhair Bakdoud on September 21, 2013 @3:56 pm PST
The D sharp is the first note of the FORUTH BEAT of bar # 8.
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Robert - host, on September 23, 2013 @12:32 pm PST
The fingering on a hypothetical D-sharp at the beginning of measure 9 one octave below the D-sharp at the end of measure 8 would be fingered depending upon what notes would follow. If you can write out on manuscript paper the note arrangement you have questions about and email it to me, I am happy to review it for you.
Zuhair Bakdoud on September 21, 2013 @3:51 pm PST
The D sharp would be one octave lower than the previous D sharp.
Thanks, Robert. I still cannot get over how you have absolutely annihilated the difficulties in piano technique................ Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Zuhair Bakdoud on September 19, 2013 @9:25 pm PST
I asked you a question about playing the FIRST note of the following group of notes using hand position. I was referring to bar (measure) #8 in the first Chopin etude op 10 in c major. There is ONE D sharp in bar 8 . How would you arrange this bar AND the first note of the next bar IF the next bar began with ANOTHER D sharp? I know I have done a lousy job of making my question understandable ... Sorry!!
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Robert - host, on September 20, 2013 @2:11 pm PST
Please let me know what octave the D-sharp would be in if there was a D-sharp at the beginning of measure 9. I'm not sure I grasp what you are after here.
Peter * VSM MEMBER * on June 28, 2013 @5:15 pm PST
Some whiteboard additional explanation would have helped me to understand
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Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on June 29, 2013 @7:10 am PST
This is a great idea I will discuss with Robert! Thank you Peter!
Robert - host, on June 29, 2013 @11:15 am PST
We will keep that in mind for future music theory videos.
Devra Robledo * VSM MEMBER * on June 26, 2013 @7:07 am PST
Thanks for a great explanation!!!
lexi on June 26, 2013 @6:05 am PST
My instrument is the trumpet........is this information the same for piano and trumpet ?
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Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on June 26, 2013 @2:46 pm PST
HI Lexi and thank you for your post. Yes, of course, this videos is about "music in general" and so this information applies to all instruments!
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