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Looking at the abundant questions already available on Music Stack Exchange, I am aware this is a very commonly asked question in the forum. However, I still struggle to aurally identify the time signature of a given piece, primarily because I am unable to differentiate between the time signatures of the form x/y and mx/y - all variables being integers. (For example: difference between 3/4 and 6/4 and 12/4, 2/4 and 4/4 and 8/4, 5/4 and 10/4, etc)

I am not really sure if we can give reference to youtube links here, but:

In the piece played at the very beginning, I can very clearly countly the beats 1 2 3 1 2 3 ... which makes it sound like 3/4, however I can also hear a 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 pattern. By which I concluded that is actually in 12/8. However the sheet music says it's in 3/4. So where am I going wrong in my analysis? And if the above piece is not in 12/8, how is a 12/8 piece recognised then?

What I precisely want to know is that is there some written rule of the accentuation of notes in any given time signature? Like given any random time signature (say 17/16 for example, does it have a given set of rules that makes it 17/16 and not 34/16?)

Also there are many songs in pop music that are apparently in 4/4, but for me they tend to be more suitably in time signature of 8/8 (especially songs wherein the chords following the pattern of - dotted crotchet + dotted crotchet + crotchet). However, surprisingly, I have never in my life seen any song with such a time signature.

I have read various answers, but still I find it difficult to accurately ascertain the time signature of any piece. Like if someone says a given piece is in 5/4, I would not be able to give a concrete argument as to why the piece is not in 10/4 or 15/4.

Please enlighten me with these rules of time signatures. I am a beginner and I would really like get out of this pit that I've been stuck in for months. Thanks a lot in advance! I would really appreciate if you address all the queries stated in the passage.

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  • one indicator is certainly the length of the phrases! while in some cases the difference of 4/4 or 12/8 is only question of notation and readability. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 17 at 20:17
  • As @AlbrechtHügli says, sometimes the time signature is chosen for readability. It can also be chosen to send a signal to the performer about interpretation. Time signatures have tendencies, but the rules aren't as strict as I think you're looking for. In the above video, I would have guessed 6/8 just as the student did. Determining a time signature by ear is as much a matter of experience and interpretation as it is a set of rules. – Aaron Feb 17 at 20:44
  • Perhaps you cannot. The same information can be expressed in both time signatures and the tempo can be changed as well. There is some ambiguity and freedom of choice in this area. – user50691 Feb 17 at 21:52
  • I think the observation about 8/8 is accurate. There are lots of pieces where this would be more appropriate than 4/4 IMO. – luser droog Feb 18 at 0:22
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You're looking for "rules" and "precise" methods, but they don't really exist.

A lot is convention.

The Baroque saraband often used the time signature 3/2. You could use 3/4 and give a metronome marking for an appropriately slow tempo and there would be nothing logically wrong with that. But in the past the 2 of 3/2 and notation with half notes for the beat was used conventionally to indicate a slow, triple time meter.

Similarly, 2/4 is conventionally used for a march. Many marches could probably be re-notated in 4/4 with no impact on the music. The phrasing might even line up nicely in 4/4. But it's conventional to write a march in 2/4.

Sometimes an old piece is in common time but eighth note triplets are used throughout the whole piece. Logically, perhaps it's a more modern attitude, such a rhythm should be in a 12/8 meter. There simply is no accounting for why the music was in 4/4 with triplets instead of 12/8. Maybe, someone could say a compound meter like 6/8 or 12/8 might suggest a gigue, and using 4/4 and triplets could be read between the lines to mean "this isn't a gigue," but that would seem to read too much into it.

You could look to phrase length or harmonic rhythm (the duration of chord changes) for hints at what the meter should be. But even that is not a precise rule. Lots of music in 4/4 will have one chord per bar, or two chords per bar.

I think a good approach would be to learn some conventional dance/genre and their associated meter types - like march 2/4, waltz 3/4, gigue 6/8, etc - and when the music seems to be one genre or another use the appropriate meter.

In cases where the music is more abstract, and not a dance/genre type, try using basic meters like 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, 9/8 as the first choices. Notice that those four are just the combinations of simple/compound and duple/triple with the one caveat that instead of simple/duple being the logical 2/4 use instead the common time 4/4. 6/8 versus 12/8 presents a similar conundrum. If there really is consistent 4 beats of something compound time, then use 12/8, but if you notated it as 2 bars of 6/8 it would probably not be a big concern.

I think the same principle would apply for additive times like 5/4 versus 10/4. If you really have some pattern of 10 like 3+3+2+2 then 10/4 seems to make sense, but a pattern of 3+2+3+2 might be better as two bars of |3+2|3+2| in 5/4.


FWIW, the video link was broken when I first answered, but now it's working. I mis-heard the groupings like this...

enter image description here

...but I was thinking of the 1 2 3 4 as a one beat unit, erroneously treating the eighths as sixteenths, and so thought 3/4 meter but for two bars of the actual score I would have had one bar.

This example is kind of tricky because it's playing with a hemiola. The actual notated barline is placed according to the bass which on the page is clearly an octave pattern of three beats. But, relative to the bass, the treble part groups by 2 beats. It's like the bass is 2+1 2+1 = 6 and the treble is 2+2+2 = 6. The two parts inherently conflict, that's what creates the hemiola effect.

My mishearing of it basically amounts to saying I hear the bass part as syncopated relative to the treble.

If you heard 12/8, I imagine it would be like this...

enter image description here

I didn't hear it correctly either, but I didn't hear compound time of 6/8 or 12/8. I think the way I determined simple versus compound is asking which line sounds like a subdivision of the other. To me I heard the treble playing subdivisions of the bass and those divisions were even, not divisions by three, therefore not compound time.

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There are at least two aspects that have to be consider when trying to get the time signature of a piece:

  • phrases (and their rhythm)
  • common practice/knowledge

But those aspects could also be extended furtherly:

  • relation between accents in the phrase (including relations of bass, accompaniment and melody)
  • speed

For instance, in your given example, while it most certainly is a 6/8, it can also be considered at least as:

  • 12/8
  • 4/4 with triplets
  • 2/4 (or "cut time") with triplets

But nobody could say it's completely wrong to write it as 6 or 12 sixteenths, or even fourths (and, why not, thirtyseconds?).

When dealing with uncertain signatures, we should always try to adopt the most common reference; since the common reference is crotchet (fourths) for simple metres and quavers (eighths) for compounds, we stick to them. Then, based on the "writings" we decide if the proposed reference is fine or not, and that's why 2/4 is the same as cut-C - while it actually isn't.

The same piece could be written as 4/4, 2/4 or even 8/16. It doesn't mean that the notation is "wrong".
Take for instance orchestral scores: there are pieces for which a separate staff for an individual part could have been written in a simpler way ("less cuts"), but what if that would result in any other part being written in more complex ways ("lots of cuts")?
The time reference is "organic", in the sense that is only relative to perception, while maintaining respect for reading and performing.
Remember: time is relative.


Then, what is pretty sure from the video is that counting "1 2 3 4" (considering the division of the bass line) is most probably not the reference signature.

Yes, you can count it like that, just as much as you can count a 5 division on a 20-bar phrase using 4/4 time.

But, music notation is based on awareness of simplification: what you read should be as much similar to what it should sound as possible, so what you see is what most instantly should be the musical result.

The phrase is based on 6 (or 12) divisions, so we can assume that it's probably 6/8 or 12/8 compound rhythms.

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  • "...your given example, while it most certainly is a 6/8..." did you get to the part of the video that displayed the actual score? It was notated in 3/4 – Michael Curtis Feb 19 at 14:20
  • @MichaelCurtis I should rephrase that, yes, but from the phrasing of the melody and accompaniment I tend to think it as a compound metre of 6/x. But, as said, there's no absolute right or wrong in these kind of times. – musicamante Feb 19 at 14:30
  • I added a re-notated 12/8 example in my answer. Is that how you are hearing a compound meter? I'm trying to understand how you, the OP, and the student all heard a compound meter. Where did you hear the beat and its division by three? – Michael Curtis Feb 19 at 14:34
  • Fundamentally, considering it as compound is not that different from how it's written (which could also have been 3/8): it's almost the same issue there is with some pieces that can be written both in 2/4 or 4/4 (or cut tempo, etc). In my perception, considering the speed and the articulation of the melody, thinking it as 6/8 (or 6/4 to allow simpler reading) is more natural due to the alternation and rythmic patterns, which are repeated in semi-phrases ("two 3/4" bars in the given score), and make me feel the down beats of every 2 bars as actual beats of a single bar. – musicamante Feb 19 at 14:48
  • @MichaelCurtis Without trying to find the exact time signature, is there a way to only determine if the piece is in simple or compound time (aurally)? – Ninad Mar 9 at 14:09

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