Guitar Sight Reading Focus: Simple Time Signatures

Updated on February 4, 2019
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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

Sight reading for guitarists - simple time signatures
Sight reading for guitarists - simple time signatures

This is the first of a series of articles, each of which will focus on one aspect of Standard Notation for guitarists. It's not a tutorial on standard music notation. It's for those who are learning to sight read standard notation and want to focus on a particular aspect of it that isn't clear or that they need practice in. It's assumed that you already understand what the notes are, how long they last and where to find them on the guitar. If not, then you can read my 'Basics of Standard Notation' to make sense of all the notes on the music staff. The link is at the bottom of this article.

Four-four time signature means four quarter note beats per bar
Four-four time signature means four quarter note beats per bar

Time Signatures and Meter

The subject of this article is simple time signatures. Note that 'simple' in this context doesn't mean easy. It's referring to time signatures in which the beats are divisible by 2. It's used in contrast to so-called compound time signatures in which the beat is divisible by three.

Simple Time signatures show two things:

1. The top number shows the meter of the music - i.e., how the beat of the music is grouped in twos, threes or fours. Every bar will contain the number of beats indicated by the time signature's top number. Other top numbers, such as fives are possible but much rarer. Pink Floyd's 'Money' is an example of a 7-time meter, i.e., beats grouped in sevens. 7 beats per bar

2. The bottom number shows which note duration has been chosen to represent a single beat in the notation. The most commonly used bottom number is four. It means that if a note lasts for one beat, it will be written as a quarter note. If it lasts for two beats it will be written as a half note, and if it lasts only half a beat, it will be written as an eighth note.

If the chosen bottom number is eight, then an eighth note will be used for notes that last one beat, a quarter note for any that last two beats and a sixteenth note for any that last just half a beat.

The bottom number of a time signature can't be heard. It's purely for notation purposes.

Here's an example using the same melodic phrase written in 'three-four' and 'three-eight'. There's no difference at all in how they sound. Some people mistakenly believe that 'three eight' must be twice as fast as 'three-four'. It's not. It's the tempo that determines the speed of playing, not the time signature. In the example, the tempo is 120 beats per minute in both cases.

3/4 and 3/8 sound the same at the same tempo.
3/4 and 3/8 sound the same at the same tempo.

Common Usage

As the example above shows, there is no difference in sound between 4 or 8 as the bottom number. That would hold true even for 2 or 16. If the bottom number of the time signature of the example had been 2, it would still sound the same. That's simply because 120 beats per minute is 120 beats per minute, and it doesn't matter what you call the beats. Calling those beats quarter note beats or eighth note beats or half note beats isn't going to change the sound of them. A beat is a beat whatever you choose to call it and only the tempo will determine how rapidly or slowly they play.

For the bottom number, 4 has become the most common choice in modern times, especially in popular music styles. It's convenient as it avoids having to use shorter duration notes with lots of double or triple beams cluttering up the page. The three-eight version of the above example has sixteenth notes while the three-four version has eighth notes. Music with quarter notes and eighth notes is considered more 'reader friendly' than the same music notated with eighth notes and sixteenth notes. It would be even less cluttered if 2 had been chosen as the bottom number, but it would also be a little harder to see the notes grouped into beats. The single beams of eighth notes are the most useful for letting us see how notes are grouped into beats within each bar.

Pick-up Bars

Not all music starts on the first beat of the bar, so an incomplete 'pick-up' bar is used to show the notes that occur before the first complete bar. The last bar is shortened by the note duration of the pick-up bar so that together they make up a complete bar with the right number of beats. It's not always done that way, but if the last bar contains repeat marks then it must be done otherwise the timing will be out. You can hear in the demo how that works.

Pick-up bar and shortened final bar make up one complete bar.
Pick-up bar and shortened final bar make up one complete bar.

Reading Practice in Various Simple Time Signatures

Play through the examples for practice in a variety of simple time signatures. You can hear the examples in the video to check that you're doing it right. Choose your own tempo for each example if you play them. There's no need to copy the tempos used in the audio recordings.

Audio of the Reading Exercises

More on Music Reading

As I mentioned at the start, if you don't know standard notation but want to learn the basics see my Standard Music Notation tutorial article. It assumes no previous knowledge.

If you need definitions, Dolmetsch has a good online music dictionary covering terms related to time signatures in more depth.

© 2014 chasmac


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