How do I distinguish complex and simple time signatures?

Are the complex ones divisible by three? (9 would be three beats per measure)

  • Could you please give more information or an example on what you mean exactly? – Matthias Nicklisch Dec 16 '15 at 9:10
  • I would say simple ones are ones that can be divided (whether it's by 3, 2, 4, etc) and complex ones are ones such as 15/16 or 7/8 which can't be divided properly. – Jamie Brace Dec 16 '15 at 9:41
  • Are you sure you don't mean simple vs. "compound" rather than "complex"? It sounds like that's what you meant to ask about. – Pat Muchmore Dec 16 '15 at 10:34
  • @PatMuchmore I was taught both ways of saying it but yes it is what I mean. – Ti-Titan Dec 16 '15 at 13:47

The best way is by counting.

Most popular music is 4/4, which can be recognized on the main beat on 1, a less/same beat on 3 and lesser beats on 2 and 4. In Reggae the emphasize is more to 2 and 4, but still they are 4/4 thus simple time signatures.

Waltz is either 3/4 or 6/8 which is practically the same. (... if it is a 3+3 scheme. A 6/8 schema can also be a 2+2+2 schema. In this case they are not the same).

The more complex are 5/4, 7/4, 11/4, 13/4, 7/8 etc. These are mostly combinations of 3 and 4 (like 7/4, 7/8). 11/4 and 13/4 are combinations of 3+4+4 or 3+4+4, or 4+4+3. 13/4 is like three times 4 but one sub-measure extended (or three 3's and a 4 in any order), or combinations of 3's and 4's.

So your answer cannot be answered completely, it's mostly a combination. You cannot get an 11/4 by only 3-length sequences.

| improve this answer | |
  • Can't agree with 3/4 and 6/8 being 'practically the same'. 3/4 is the usual accepted waltz time, whereas 6/8 is far more a two count per bar. I used to play some Greek music in 13/4 that was 3+3+3+4. – Tim Dec 17 '15 at 10:53
  • I'm sorry I had to down vote this simply for that third paragraph that is just plain wrong. – Neil Meyer Jan 1 '16 at 16:52
  • @NeilMeyer No problem and you might be rightthat 3/4 or 6/8 does not have the same if it implies a 2-2-2 scheme instead of 3-3 scheme. I updated my answer thanks to you, thanks! – Michel Keijzers Jan 2 '16 at 20:52
  • @Tim: I am not aware of Greek music, but I adapted my answer according to your notification; thanks. – Michel Keijzers Jan 2 '16 at 20:55

It all has to do with what is considered a beat / pulse in those time signatures. Simple time signatures have regular notes as beats or in other words notes without dots. Compound Time Signatures have dotted notes for beats / pulses.

So 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 are all time signatures with regular crotchet beats whereas 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 are all time signatures with dotted crotchets beats.

2/8, 3/8 and 4/8 are all time signatures with quaver beats whereas 6/16, 9/16 and 12/16 are all time signatures with dotted quavers for beats.

And lastly there is off course 2/2, 3/2 and 4/2 time signatures which is in all three cases time signatures with minim beats and 6/4, 9/4 and 12/4 which is in all three cases time signatures with dotted minim beats.

| improve this answer | |

I believe what you meant to ask was what is the difference between the simple time and compound time(not complex time)? When the upper figure of a time signature is below 6, it is said to be a simple time signature but when it is equal to and above 6, it is called a compound time signature.

| improve this answer | |
  • Then what is 5/4 considered to be? – Dom Jan 1 '16 at 16:09
  • An irregular time signature is the proper term. – Neil Meyer Jan 1 '16 at 16:53
  • 7/4 is simple time. Wouldn't it be better to understand that each beat in simple time divides into equal halves, whereas each beat in compound time divides into equal thirds ? – Dan Jan 3 '16 at 17:21
  • My teacher just referred it to both complex and compound. – Ti-Titan Jan 4 '16 at 14:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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