I am attempting to teach myself how to read music and have hit a wall. My trouble is time signatures and it was described to me as this:

Imagine you are walking and you walk 1-2-3-4. This would be shown as 4 1/4 notes in a measure. IE 4/4 That I get, then it gets tricky. Then imagine that you slow down by half so that you only step on the beats 1 and 3. That would be shown as 2 1/2 notes in a measure.

Now does that mean that the signature is 2/2, 4/4, 4/2 or what?

Please help as I am utterly and completely at a loss and I really don't want to have to give up trying to learn, and I cannot afford a teacher.

Thank you in advance : )


4 Answers 4


If your walk is a 1-2-3-4 (4/4) and you only step on beats 1 and 3, that means you are playing(stepping on) halves,but the time signature is still 4/4.

I think it's note values/durations you don't understand.

If you walk on every step (1-2-3-4), then you would play quarters.

A 4/4 walk has 4 quarter notes if you step on every step. That means you'll be able to step 4 times in a bar. But if you step only in beats 1 and 3, the duration of the whole bar would still be the same. For instance, if the bar duration was 20 seconds when you stepped on all of 1-2-3-4, then when you step on 1 and 3, the bar duration will still be 20 seconds. The difference is that when you play quarters, the notes will last 5 seconds each, while when you play halves, the notes will last 10 seconds each.

This is your walk if you step every single step: enter image description here

And this is if you step on steps 1 and 3:enter image description here

As you see, the 4/4 is the same in both situations. It's just the note duration that change.

In the first example the note durations are shorter, whist in the second one are longer. That's the point of the note values/durations.

Here are some links that might help you:

Note Duration

Note Durations on Piano

Learn Duration of Music Notes with Soft Mozart

Another video with Note Durations on Piano

And some charts that will help you:

enter image description here

enter image description here


I don't see how the "Imagine you are walking" stuff explains time signatures in any way. It only seems to be describing how you can have different rhythms within a 4/4 bar. You cannot always determine exactly what the time signature is from the notes. Two minims in a bar could be 2/2 or 4/4.

The time signature itself tells you how a bar is constructed; the number on top tells you how many beats there are in a bar, and the number below tells you how long those beats are. So 4/4, which is probably the most common signature, means you have four crotchet beats in a bar, and 4/8 means four quaver beats in a bar, and the only difference is in the way the notes are written out - in 4/8 one beat would be one quaver; 8 equal notes in a bar would be 8 semiquavers.

The lower number can be any power of two: 1 for whole note/semibreve, 2 for minims, 4 for crotchets, 8 for quavers etc. Mostly you will only see 2, 4 and 8 here.

The upper number tells you how many beats in a bar unless it's a multiple of 3 (except 3 itself). If it's a multiple of 3 then this indicates compound time; listen to the song "Didn't we have a lovely time the day we went to Bangor"; this has two beats to the bar, but each beat is split into 3. Without compound time this would have to be written in 2/4 but with triplet signs all over the place, so writing it in 6/8 instead makes for cleaner music.

You can have a lot of fun with different numbers on the top. Listen to Take Five; that is in 5/4 time.

Blue Rondo A La Turk is another good one with an odd signature. It's in 9/8, but has two different groupings of notes: 2/2/2/3 and 3/3/3.

7/8 is a very interesting signature; it's one quaver short of the very common 4/4 time, and music in 7/8 can seem somehow incomplete.

Going back to 3's: the signature 3/4 often denotes a waltz, although there is non-waltz music in 3/4 (like the British National Anthem. We've abolished the death penalty for everything except trying to waltz that). Some music will be in 3/8 to indicate clearly this is not to be done as a waltz.

4/4 is also known as common time and can be denoted with a C where the time signature would normally appear. Watch out for "cut common", which is a C with a vertical line through it; this has two beats to the bar but is written out as if in 4/4.

  • Compound time can include 3/8 or 3/4, counted as "one in the bar".
    – Laurence
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 12:29

I think you should try and deconstruct time signatures into 2 basic types, standard time (quarter time) and waltz time. Standard time is most often written as 4/4, but some music is written with double time or 2/4. 90% of the music you'll play and read is written in these 2 time signatures, and the remaining 9.9% will be 3/4 and 6/8. The difference between 4/4 and 2/4 is that 2/4 music has an emphasis every other quarter note, while 4/4 has an emphasis on every 4th q. note.

DA!- da - DA!- da - DA!... (2/4) or DA!- da - da - da - DA!- da - da - da (4/4)

The same principle applies to waltz time:

DA!- da - da - DA!- da - da (3/4) and DA!- da - da - da - da - da - DA! ...(6/8)

Usually 6/8 time is counted out ONE! - two - three - four five - six

Odd time signatures (5/4, 7/4, 11/4) are thought of as combining 2 of the basic types, with an emphasis on the waltz part, for example 7/4 time is: ONE! - two - three - ONE! - two - three - ONE! - two...

There is very little popular music written in odd time signatures, but a good example is "Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers which is 11/4 time.


Then imagine that you slow down by half so that you only step on the beats 1 and 3. That would be shown as 2 1/2 notes in a measure.

That means the Measure is 2/2. 2 beats per measure and the main note is the half note, which in this case, gets 1 beat.

  • No. It means nothing more than that you have chosen to play half notes rather than quarters.
    – Laurence
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 17:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.