A lot of times, when I'm trying to come up with a riff on my guitar/bass, my bars' time signatures change a lot, and I don't realize it.

For instance, the first bar might be 4/4 then the second 5/4 then again 4/4 then 3/4 and so on..

How can I start thinking in a more structured way so as to keep the same time signature throughout the song? What I try to do now is count 1-2-3-4, but when I do that, I can't think straight.

I don't have a problem with songs that change time signatures. Quite the contrary honestly, but if I ever write a song that does change time signatures, I would like to write it because I know how to write it and change time signatures when I want to, but most of all I need to understand when I am changing it.

  • 2
    What you want to do is a good idea, and I hope you get a good answer. I'd like to add, though, that if your improvisations change time signature but still sound good, you might as well use them. Music isn't about following the rules, but about finding what sounds good.
    – Kevin
    Dec 28, 2013 at 19:38
  • I with you 100%, but still, I think it would be better if I could keep the same time signature for as long as I wanted Dec 28, 2013 at 21:37
  • As has been said many times - go to a good teacher, who will remedy this (and probably other niggles) in a much shorter time than sorting it out in isolation.He will be able to solve the problems 'on the fly'.
    – Tim
    Dec 29, 2013 at 11:28

2 Answers 2


Like everything, "structured thinking" takes time to develop, and there are some simple exercises you can do to get you on your way.

Thinking, in terms of music composition, greatly incorporates a variety of learned skills, two of which are applicable to this question: awareness and organization.

Before you play, organize or plan what you're going to play. It can be as simple as just talking it out with a friend. "Ok, we're going to do 3 bars of 3/4 and then 2 bars of 4/4." Or it can be an extremely in-depth planning process. Creating a guide will help direct your playing / writing and create more consistency in your approach.

Awareness plays a critical role in composition / performance. If you switch time signatures, you want to be aware that you're doing so, and understand why you're doing it. In this particular instance, I would recommend a couple things for you to improve:

  • active listening
  • transcription
  • play in those time signatures

Listening actively and transcribing what you play as your are playing it will help you stay more aware of what it is your doing or what's going on. This sounds difficult, but will improve over time.

Transcription (total transcriptions) are vital for developing the ear and an awareness of what is going on in an ensemble. Apart from transcribing your own stuff, transcribe others' music as well.

Lastly, physically playing in each time signature will help you become more familiar with each and how to count through them. Next, pick two to move between and practice doing it consciously. Then add another, then add another, and so on. By practicing moving between them you will develop your sensitivity to meter changes and therefore increase your overall awareness.

This is not a comprehensive answer, but it does provide a few ideas on how you may get started.


It might help to start using a metronome and then you can gradually ween yourself off this as you get better at keeping bar lengths. Most electrical metronomes make a different sound for the first beat of every bar to keep you on track, there are even free apps that can do this as far as I can remember.

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