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?


8 Answers 8


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!


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.


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 (straight 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 “straight” 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.

  • The 'square' term is usually known as 'straight'. Tell the drummer a number has a 'straight eight' feel, and he's happy knowing how it's played.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 15:25

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.


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.


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.


When trying to find out the time signature, the first thing you do is try to find a strong beat. This beat is often the loudest or something significant will happen on the beat. Next, you count the rest of the beats in a bar before the next bar starts, so if you count 3 beats it might be in 3/4, or it might be in 4/4 if you count 4 beats ect. Additionally, if there is a base it will often give you a clue because it might be acting as the "metranome" for the piece.


In western classical music, you can find the time signature by two methods. The first is through the percussion and listening to the accents of the instruments. Uusually, the first note of a bar is accented. the second is through listening to the motifs and ostinatos. This sometimes, however, does not work.

In more modern music there is usually a rhythm part which would be helpful towards recognizing time signature. However, with drums, the beat may still be in 4/4 or common time as it is also known but it is played with sixteenth notes. which creates the timing as 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a. so be careful on that. most modern pop songs are in common time but not all.

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