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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
    
Do you have any particular genres in mind? Popular and folk music have lots of shortcuts to figuring out the beat that might not be applicable to “classical” music. –  Bradd Szonye Dec 9 at 0:49

6 Answers 6

up vote 18 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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For popular music, you can determine the time signature by listening to the rhythm section, especially the drum kit and bass. These two instruments typically carry the musical pulse. You can figure out the time signature’s note value (lower number) by listening to the subdivisions of the pulse, and you can figure out the time signature’s note count (upper number) by listening for the repetition of the pulse.

The beat varies greatly from genre to genre, but there are a few handy generalizations to help you find the pulse. Usually the easiest way is to listen for the hi-hat, which consistently carries the pulse in most popular music. Listen for a steady pattern like one of these:

  • tick, tick, tick, tick (quarters/crotchets)
  • tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick (square eighths/quavers)
  • tick-tick-tick, tick-tick-tick, tick-tick-tick, tick-tick-tick (triplets)
  • tick . . . tick-tick . . . tick-tick . . . tick-tick (shuffle/swing)

The “square” patterns are played evenly or with a regular accent every two, four, or eight ticks of the hi-hat, and they almost always indicate a time signature in 4. Triplet, shuffle, and swing patterns sometimes use compound time signatures, although it’s also very common to write them in 4 with an indication to play eights with triplet or swing feel. (It’s hard to go wrong by writing a popular music score in 4 – it’s by far the most common signature value, and as others have noted, it’s usually trivial to convert to equivalents.)

Once you have the basic pulse from the hi-hat, you can use the bass and snare to find the count. The convention for most popular music is to carry the downbeat in bass (guitar or drum) and the backbeat in snare. Ignoring fills and syncopation, you should find a steady pattern like “thump, hit, thump, hit.” The thumps mark downbeats and the snare hits mark backbeats. If you find that pattern exactly, the piece is in 4/4 time. Otherwise, count how many beats it takes the whole pattern to repeat. If the count is even, divide it in two until you get to an odd number or 4. For example, if you hear “thump, hit, hit, thump, hit, thump, hit” repeated, the song is in 7/4 time (grouped into 3/4 + 4/4). If you hear “thump, thump, hit, thump, hit, hit” repeated – a count of six – the song is in 3/4 time.

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