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? 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. 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. 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.

  • 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! Jan 2 '16 at 20:52
  • @Tim: I am not aware of Greek music, but I adapted my answer according to your notification; thanks. 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.


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.

  • 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

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