Now, I am not asking for the general answer given in band class ("The top number tells how many beats are in a measure; the bottom number tells what note gives the beat"). I'm more asking what it is and by what concept is it defined. My thoughts are:

A time signature is the "feel" of the song. For example, in most songs that are 4/4, there is a drum pattern. It starts with the bass, then the snare, then bass again and snare again. It creates a pulse; that pulse is called a "beat". If someone were to cut a song into pieces, which are, in a sense, equal, the way that makes the most sense is by dividing it into this pattern. Since the pattern consists of 4 parts, in this time, the song would have 4 beats per pattern. Other songs, however, have different patterns and those patterns are what define the measure, what gets the beat, and how many beats each measure has.

Is that correct?

  • You have pretty much answered your own question in the second paragraph. You could make this its own answer if you wanted. – Caleb Hines Jan 7 '15 at 5:20
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    While in general, you are correct, I would caution against tying the time signature too closely to any specific drum patterns. There are many different drum patterns that will fit in a given time signature (or even none, for most classical music), though the one that you listed is very common. You are correct to think of a beat as a pulse. The only thing I'd add is that the first beat/pulse of a measure is (usually) a stronger beat than the others. This is why you will sometimes see meter described as a hierarchy of beats: it ranks some beats as stronger, and others as weaker. – Caleb Hines Jan 7 '15 at 5:27
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    I think you need to re-think 'time sig is the feel of the song'. Often it isn't. Many different 'feels'are available within 4/4, for example. A bossa feel, a cha cha feel, even a blues feel, which could be construed as 12/8, but written in 4/4. Many more examples abound. – Tim Jan 7 '15 at 14:51

Time signatures are how we define the measures that we use to organize our music. Music is not always rigid - in fact sometimes very fluid. At the risk of getting too zen, your own concept of time relative to the music that you realize externally dictates how you perceive and apply time signatures in your music.

While most of us can agree on ranges of tempi, many of us would disagree how something should be notated. For example, a quick passage in 4/4 can be rewritten as a slower passage in 2/2. Changing our relative time perception changes our aesthetic interpretation, and therefore changes our aural experience.

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  • and sometimes makes it easier/ harder to read/write! – Tim Jan 8 '15 at 17:03

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