What are some ways a song without drums can indicate the rhythm/time signature through the melody or chord progression? It seems that when drums are involved, they play a certain beat over and over again which makes it pretty clear.

Would playing a certain chord or note on every 1 beat work? What about simply playing a note at a higher octave or playing a certain sound on the 1 beat?

I’m trying to wrap my head around time signatures/rhythm in general, any examples or thoughts on this would be much appreciated. Thanks!

  • 1
    Depends on time signature and whether or not polyrhythm is involved. And if the musical genre in question makes use of syncopation.
    – Pyromonk
    Oct 7, 2020 at 22:33

8 Answers 8


It seems that you're asking how music without direct rhythm instruments (like drums as the most basic example) ends up still sounding with a specific time signature and beats. If not I'll re-answer but I'll do my best to explain how rhythm is indicated with just pitched notes.

TL;DR you can repeat notes/chords which basically acts like a drum, or you can use volume to create rhythm, or breakpoints in the melody/harmony itself.

Repetition of chords or notes is definitely one way. If your harmony consists of broken notes and a blocked chord every Beat 1, then it will form an audible rhythm. This is quite similar to drums though; instead of a drum beat you're just using a louder/bolder chord and so it serves the same purpose through the same means, basically.

If you have long runs of notes, you can emphasize the beats by playing each note that's on the beat slightly louder. Take this for example:

enter image description here

(Tidecaller - Nami's Theme from League of Legends)

In the runs, I play each Beat 1 slightly stronger than the other notes. This indicates where the measures start. Another thing is that every Beat 1 is also where the run switches directions; the top and bottom notes occur at the start of each measure, which also creates an identifiable rhythm.

Finally, songs usually aren't just one giant run of notes. The music will stop or pause and usually a chord that has a notable pause after it or ends a run will happen at the start of its measure, giving a strong indication of the beat. Take this for example:

enter image description here

(This Game - No Game No Life OP)

Measure 18 is very clearly indicated by ending the run from Measure 15 - 17.

  • 1
    This is incorrectly notated btw. (Bar 18 is almost right.) Oct 8, 2020 at 1:21
  • @OldBrixtonian Oh; what's wrong with it? I didn't notice anything so I'd appreciate if you could point it out cuz I've missed it :P Oct 8, 2020 at 1:23
  • Sure. See my answer below. (Which I should probably delete soon!) Oct 8, 2020 at 10:27
  • The notation doesn't reflect the metre at all. Bar 11 is arguably correct, but it'd be a lot easier to read if the C# were a semiquaver tied to a quaver; dotted quavers are usually only beamed in compound metres where they're similar to duplets. Offbeat minims are definitely to be avoided. Bar 13 is baffling in that you've grouped the left hand quite formally, tying quavers across the beat... but done it lazily with a crotchet in the right hand, where the readability suffers much more than it would in the left. The three-quaver groups throughout are entirely incorrect, they imply a 3/2/3 metre
    – Esther
    Oct 8, 2020 at 10:49
  • 1
    Wonder why they were Free.
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2020 at 16:13

A good performer should be able to make almost any sequence of notes sound in almost any metre. They will do this by emphasizing key beats in some way, with subtle (or, if they're forcing something far outside its "natural" metre, not-so-subtle) variations in volume and/or intonation.

  • The emphasis during the bar is only half the story. I don't agree with you: try taking a tune written in 4/4 and play it with the correct emphasis as if it was in 3/4 - without changing the timing of any of the notes. Chances are, it just won't sound like good music. I'll leave you to work out why...
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2020 at 16:12
  • @Tim the fact that it is possible to so thoroughly butcher Twinkle Twinkle literally proves my point.
    – Esther
    Oct 27, 2020 at 1:29

One simple way is to simply play notes/sounds with a different velocity/volume. If you take a single note and play it at regular intervals, but in a pattern: Loud - soft - medium - soft - Loud - soft - medium - soft - Loud - soft - medium - soft etc... you'll have created a rhythmic feel. As well as volume, you can also alter timbre of the note, or how much you're muting it, and so on.


The main point of time signatures is that they compartmentalise the rhythm of a piece. Often, a piece can be 'written' without the 'composer' even considering what the time signature might be. It's when it actually gets written down as music that it becomes important, academically.That's when the emphases are notated. If there's a pulse that gets repeated every three counts, it's probably going to be in three time.

That constant repeat may well be due to an emphasised accent every three counts (beats), probably accompanied by a change of harmony at that same point.

Drums aren't needed to establish a time signature - they underline it, but in most pieces, the above is sufficient. There are millions of pieces sans drums, and listeners usually have no trouble feeling and counting what their time signatures are. Mainly due to the above, again.


The pitches in a voice can imply a time signature

Let's say that we're in 4/4 time, and we're just considering a single voice. We can have this voice be consisting of all randomly pitched quarter notes, without any accents, which will cause the listener to have no knowledge about the time signature. They won't be able to tell if its in 4/4, or 3/4, or 5/4 (although they will probably assume 4/4).

However, if this voice is organized in such a way that it has an obvious beginning and an end (based on the melodic idea -> the pitches) we can start to suggest a time signature. For example, the opening voice in Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major. Does it scream any time signatures at you? Link to Sonata below.

A more straightforward example is a simple piano waltz, where the left hand implies 3/4 time based on the fact that you have a repeating pattern of three (the bass note on beat one, and two chords on beats two and three). You don't even need to place any accents anywhere or create any spacings.

Here is what I get on YouTube when I search up "Simple Piano Waltz", to reinforce my claim. It is quite apparent that the first piece is in 3/4! Counting it in 4/4 is very difficult... yet produces a potential groove opportunity?!


It's mostly to do with musical grammar. For example, as a general rule, crotchets or minims shouldn't be placed on the 4th quaver of a 4/4 (and more so a 2/2) bar - as in your bar 12 - as they conceal the mid-point of the bar. Ties are needed.

[4/4 bars ARE often divided into eg. 3 + 2 + 3, but your left hand here is clearly in standard 4/4 or 2/2.]

I haven't done the expression marks, but you get the idea!

Piano ten bars

  • 1
    Sadly, more and more 4/4 is written out without regard to splitting the bars into two. Not a good trend - for reading.
    – Tim
    Oct 8, 2020 at 12:40
  • I agree. The OP's 2nd bar is surprisingly hard to sight-read. Itreminded me of Cubase's first attempts at transcription. Once the start and length of a note have been quantized, if it's as long as a minim it must be a minim; wherever it occurs! Oct 8, 2020 at 14:21

Meter and time signatures themselves are abstract concepts: the division of time into a regular pattern of accents.

How exactly those metrical accents are perceptible in actual music is achieved in different ways: dynamics (loud/soft), changes in pitch, rhythmic duration, etc. Basically you need some element to change. You need a minimum of two differing things.

The critical thing is music will be in a meter (or not) by virtual of what the music actually does. A common misconception is that simply writing a time signature means the music is actually in that time. But, it works the other way around. If the music is truly in a meter, then you apply that meter to describe the music.

In a way you are treating a drum backing track in a similar way. Or your expecting a meter will only be perceptible if something marks out time, like a metronome that dings on the first beat of a bar. But that isn't necessary. If the music is truly in the meter, you will be able to hear it without a time signature or a time keeping device.

Consider these unmetered, unbarred examples.

This makes duple, 4/4 time, because of the pattern of durations...

enter image description here

This makes triple, 3/4 time, using pitch change...

enter image description here

This is compound, 9/8 time, using dynamic accents...

enter image description here

Of course you would normally notate those examples with time signatures and bar lines for reading convenience.

Would playing a certain chord or note on every 1 beat work?

Yes, something like that will work.

A concept related to meter and bar lines is harmonic rhythm, the rate and pattern of chord changes. It's very common for music to change chord with each bar or simple subdivisions like one chord per two bars, or two chords per bar. If you described a harmonic rhythm pattern of chord changes every 4 beats followed by every 2 beats, you also have the information to know the meter is duple, either 2/4 or 4/4.

A simple two chord vamp would be enough to do what you're suggesting.

Arpeggiating a chord with a bass, hit the root only on beat one, that would make the meter clear even playing steady quarter notes.


For songs sung in English or some other langauges that incorporate strong lexical stress patterns, the lyrics of a song can imply a time signature. Consider the following lines from Iolanthe (Gilbert & Sullivan), with each syllable being one eighth note, and an eight rest at the of each line:

When you're lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is taboo'ed by anxiety,

I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety.

The piece is in 6/8 time, and flows smoothly if one uses MAJOR and minor stresses accordingly:

When you're LYing awake with a DISmal headache and rePOSE is taboo'ed by anXIety,

I conCEIVE you may use any LANguage you choose to inDULGE in without improPRIety.

If one tries to perform the text as though it were in 3/4, however, it becomes rather awkward:

When you're LYing awake with a DISmal headache and rePOSE is taboo'ed by anXIety,

I conCEIVE you may use any LANguage you choose to inDULGE in without improPRIety.

In the first example, all but one of the minor stresses fit normal English lexical stress patterns, and the one that doesn't the stressed syllable fits an internal rhyme ("awake" and "headache"). In the second example, many of the minor stresses fall contrary to normal English patterns (e.g. awake, taboo'ed, and continuing the 3/4 pattern further throught the text, conspire, cover, and demurely).

Many songs have texts which are far less forcing, but one shouldn't overlook the possibility of using lexical stress to drive rhythm.

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