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Every song has some kind of time signature even if different parts of the song have different time signatures there is always a time signature. When learning a song by ear and no score, knowing the time signature and where beat 1 is significantly helps understand the rhythmic feel of the song. Is there a simple technique you can use to determine the time signature of a song just by listening?

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Related: music.stackexchange.com/q/2050/1678 –  American Luke Jan 29 at 21:08

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Using only your ears, it's impossible to determine the exact time signature the composer would have used when writing the score. This is because there are many ways to write the same thing, all of which sound the same when played.

For example, a piece written in 3/4 time can easily be re-written in 3/8 time by halving all the note values and playing it half as fast. The listener has no way of telling which you chose.

The real trick is to determine the pulse of the song, which you do by feeling the rhythm of the music and identifying how often beat 1 happens. It's then up to you to choose a time signature that makes sense to you and the musicians around you!

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Start by finding the beat. Tap your finger for every beat, like a human metronome. Resist any urge to tap uneven rhythms; just the underlying constant pulse.

Once you've got that, listen for the start of bars. There are various indicators that a bar is starting; an emphasis, a chord change, etc.

Now count. "One" for the first beat, then counting upward, returning to "One" at the start of the next bar.

Now you've found the top number of the time signature. For example if you're counting "One two three four One two three four ...", the time signature is 4/X. Next you need to work out what X is.

Generally speaking:

  • if you're counting at a comfortable talking speed, the beats are crotchets, so the bottom number is 4.
  • if you're counting fast enough that it's easy to trip over your tongue, they're likely to be quavers, so the bottom number is 8.
  • if you're leaving a substantial pause between numbers, they're likely to be minims, so the bottom number is 2.

As GavinH has pointed out, there can be more than one "right" answer. You could count along to the same song as 8/8 - "onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight" - or as 4/4 - "one two three four". It's up to you which one feels the best fit.

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Like the idea of 'count up until you have to say one again, 'cos that's the start of the next bar'. The number you reached is the number of beats in each bar. –  Tim Jan 30 at 19:03

For odd time signatures it's often beneficial to break them down into a series of more common signatures. E.g. a 7/4 part can be thought of as 4/4 + 3/4. By starting out counting in 4/4, usually one get a feel for where the "bump" is and adjust accordingly.

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9/4 sounds quite rare. Any examples, please? –  Tim Jan 30 at 18:59
It was just an example, but I was likely thinking of 9/8. The principle is the same though. –  Meaningful Username Jan 31 at 8:55
If you were, then it's most often played as 3 sets of triplets. –  Tim Jan 31 at 8:58
Yes, usually it is, so the example isn't that great. I have broken down a 9/8 like that though, since the riff implied that structure, but I changed to thinking in triplets. Will edit... –  Meaningful Username Jan 31 at 9:01

Both of the answers above are correct and informative. However, I do believe that it is possible to obtain the time signature of a song by simply listening. Equivalents are almost irrelevant because they're equivalent! Unless you're trying to write out an accurate reproduction score of the piece, an equivalent time signature will suffice.

Songs in 4/4 and 3/4 are very easy to pick out, I pick out time signatures by tapping on my thigh along with the beat. When it comes to less common time signatures like 9/8 it gets a little trickier and you just have to apply your ear a little harder. You can usually tell that a time signature is uncommon if the rhythm sounds unique, and then again simply tap along using quarter notes or eighth notes. I usually determine time signatures using quarter notes as a measure.

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Time signatures can be written in many ways and are largely contextual, so the short answer is no.

However, I think it is absolutely possible to come up with synonymous time signatures, based on the phrasing, pulse and beat emphasis. This means you can tell the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 usually.

The problem with being accurate here is that while there's a technical difference between time sigs like 6/8 and 12/8, they're often ignored and the most practical, or just the one the composer's familiar with is used.

So overall I'd say technically no, but in practical terms yes.

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