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I can't read music yet, and want to know the time signatures of certain pieces of music. When the time signature isn't explicitly shown on the sheet music, how do I find out what it is?

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    Time signature is almost always explicitly shown on sheet music. Anyway I find the question strange – once you properly understand what time signature is in relation to sheet music, it should also be obvious how to infer it from the bars themselves. – leftaroundabout Jan 20 '17 at 22:34
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    Can you post an example of music without a time signature? – Todd Wilcox Jan 20 '17 at 22:39
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    @ToddWilcox, imslp.org/wiki/File:KoechlinPaysagesEtMarinesOp63.pdf. It's not that uncommon for free-flowing music. You do learn to infer the metre(s) pretty quickly. – user16935 Jan 21 '17 at 6:03
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    @ToddWilcox Erik Satie often wrote music with no time signature or even measures: imslp.org/wiki/… (see also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_time_(music) for more examples) – Bradd Szonye Jan 21 '17 at 6:18
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    @neilfein Are you sure that's what the author intended? It was my original thought, but he starts the question with "I can't read music yet." – General Nuisance Jan 23 '17 at 6:58
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I'm not sure why the other answers are downplaying music withoutenter image description here time signatures.

There is none to be found on this entire page. No C or anything and C would not make sense anyway. These pieces would have to employ too many different time signatures to reflect what the composer intended.

What I do is observe the timing of not notes and try not to think about that overall time signature, since there isn't one. After you play it a few times strictly observing the timing in each bar you start to feel what the music should feel like. The omission of the time signature is not a mistake.

That being said it is likely the the OP just doesn't know about the symbols for common and cut time. It is weird that many of the answers above just say that a time signature should always be there or is always shown.

  • I consider this as the default is 4/4, and the editor was to lazy to insert time signature changes as to 6/4 and back in the second bar. The example provides no example of a piece beyond the scope of time-signatures – guidot Mar 5 '17 at 15:06
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    Umm I didn't want to post the entire thing because of copyright reasons. there are some with bars with 2 beats in them as well. It is only 4 lines and that happens fairly often. It is kinda silly and mean spirited to call an editor lazy because you saw one quarter of the piece that was written down in a collection of 700+ songs. – xerotolerant Mar 5 '17 at 15:47
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    No matter how many pieces of music of an editor, it is not appropriate not to write the time signature, unless it is in free time, which this is not. Guidot is completely reasonable here. – Ansel Chang Apr 12 '17 at 22:55
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I've never seen a piece of music without a time signature. If it doesn't have a number over a number, it has some form of a C. Since I'm not sure exactly what your asking or what kind of music you're looking at, I've separated this answer into 3 parts.

Ways to write time signatures that aren't normal:

If your problem is not having a basic understanding of how to read time signatures, please skip to the next section of this answer where I will address that.

A plain C means "common time," or 4/4 (as noted above by neilfein.)

A C with a vertical cross through it (much like a cent sign) means "cut time," or 2/2 (also called "alla breve" by smart people ;-P).


How to read time signatures:

A time signature is a fraction. It describes the whole. Even a fraction that is less than 1 describes "one whole measure."

So, that means that we're already familiar with the notation, to a certain extent.

The top number is the numerator (how many things are in the whole) and the bottom is the denominator (what kind of things).

Take: 4/4

The top number in the fraction is four, so we know that there's four "things" in the measure, or beats, as they're referred to. (A beat is a steady pulse, so four steady pulses per measure.)

The bottom number is also four, so we know that the "1/4th note," or quarter note, receives one beat. That's the "kind of thing (beat)."

Great, so in 4/4 we have four beats per measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.

enter image description here

In this case, the first note is a quarter note, which equals one beat. So we have three beats left in the measure.

The second two notes are eighth notes, and two of those adds up to a quarter, so there's our second beat.

The last two markings are quarter rests, of which there are two, and therein lie the last two beats. And so, all of our four beats are accounted for.

We could do this for, ahdunno, 3/4 as well.

We would expect to find 3 beats in each measure, with, once again, a quarter note receiving one beat.

Take this song:

enter image description here

You can see that all the measures have exactly three beats when you do the math.


How to read time signatures where the fraction form is not specified:

If you, in some unusual circumstance (like a test) come across music without a time signature noted in the front, you can figure it out quite easily by "reverse engineering" the meter.

For example:

enter image description here

If we pretend the time signature is not notated at the beginning, we must figure out what it is with what we have. But remember, the time signature at the beginning of a piece is simply an observation about how the rest of the piece is written. It is the symptom, not the cause. Therefore, we can look at the actual piece and come to figure out our time signature.

Once again in above measure, we can see that we have four quarter beats, so 4/4 is an obvious conclusion. However, you may notice that there are other possible answers. Basically, any fraction equivalent to 1 where the numbers are multiples of two. This could be read as

2/2

4/4

8/8

etc...

They're equivalent fractions, that could describe the same thing. This is where it can get a bit confusing, but usually it will make sense if you hear the piece.

4/4 has four big pulses, and those can be divided into two parts (or more) but the four beats remain prominent.

2/2, while it can be read as 4/4, has a fundamentally different feel. It, quite simply, has two beats, and the half note gets a beat. So if you have a measure with four quarter notes in 2/2, it will feel like two beats which have each been divided in half. It's how the music is felt.

I'm getting tired, so I'm gonna stop typing now... I hope this helps, and if you have questions, please comment!

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    Some of this is helpful for music where the transcriptions are just sloppy and missing something, but it helps less for music in free time like certain prog rock or impressionist pieces (e.g., the Gnossiennes). – Bradd Szonye Jan 21 '17 at 6:21
  • @BraddSzonye Yeah, I didn't really know that free meter existed when I wrote this (learn something new every day!) so I assumed the OP, which said "I can't read music yet," was referring to some music theory test (I've seen 'infer the time signature' tests before) – General Nuisance Jan 23 '17 at 16:06
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I'm guessing that you have music with this symbol in the beginning of the first bar. It means the music is in "common time", or 4/4.

common time

Also, as General Nuisance noted in the comments below, a C with a line through it is the symbol for cut time, or 2/2. ¢ is pretty close for casual use but I'd not use it in a score.

cut time

  • Please note that a ¢ as a time signature means cut time. – General Nuisance Jan 21 '17 at 5:33
  • Haven't seen that on a page since piano lessons! Good one, adding it to my answer. – neilfein Jan 21 '17 at 5:37
  • A cent sign is not a good approximation of the cut time marker, especially in the font used here. – Bradd Szonye Jan 21 '17 at 6:15
  • There's a Unicode symbol for cut time, apparently: 𝄵 (It doesn't show up on my system, but maybe it shows up on yours.) – Michael Seifert Jan 21 '17 at 15:30
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If no time signature is written - the most likely place for a beginner to have seen this is in church music - it is because you're not MEANT to work out what it is! Just let it flow...

But yes, this might just be about not knowing what C means as a time signature.

  • I don't understand how the other answers don't address this directly. I know of two pieces with no time signatures in my church hymnal. – xerotolerant Mar 5 '17 at 13:31
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Most pieces have a time sig. Even ones where that time sig. needs to be changed every few bars. It's there as a help to the reader; it saves having to calculate how many of what beats are in each bar.As already stated, it's something after the fact, sometimes not even apparent to a songwriter until the song gets written on paper. When, in some pieces, the time sig changes, it's up to the writer to tell the reader with a new time sig.

If a piece has no time sig. - I can't remember seeing any music without - it's probably because it's in free time. In which case, there should be some barlines to indicate emphases, which is essentially what bar lines and time sigs do.

General Nuisance mentioned equivalent fractions, but you need to be aware that they don't always mean what they say. 3/4 is equivalent to 6/8, but they mean very different things, even though they both add up to 3 'beats' in a bar.

  • Sorry Tim but 6/8 normally has only two beats in a bar! – JimM Jan 21 '17 at 11:36
  • @JimM - that's why the word 'beats' was written as such. I know what you mean and you're correct. I should put each bar contains the equivalent of 3 crotchets (what I call one beat notes, aka 1/4 notes) – Tim Jan 21 '17 at 12:21
  • Exactly, which is why I was so "Yeah, it's like this, but it can be kind of confusing unless you hear the song." For someone who, as I judge the OP to be, does not have as much experience with "feeling music," it could be easy to assume that a song in 6/8 is a song in 3/4, or whatever. I once transcribed a version of "What Child is This" for violin so I could mess with some chords, and even though it was played in 6/8, I wrote it in 3/4 because I just didn't really think about it as 6/8 (although, of course, anybody could tell you that it was... STILL WORKS!!;-P) – General Nuisance Jan 21 '17 at 16:57
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It should always be shown on the sheet music. If it is not numbers and is instead the letter "C", that means 4/4 common time. If it is a "C" with a cross through it, it means "cut time" and it is 2/2.

If you are asking how to read time signatures, I am going to simplify it as much as I can. I found it hard to understand exactly what a time signature meant when I first started playing music.

Let's use 4/4 as an example.

The top 4 means there are 4 beats in a bar.

The bottom 4 dictates what type of beat. It works kind of like a fraction in this way, 4 is a "quarter note" or a crotchet.

Let's use 2/4 as another example.

This means there are 2 quarter notes in a bar.

What about time signatures like 6/8?

This would mean that there would be 6 beats in a bar. However, they would be a different type of beat than the quarter note. They would be half a quarter note, so an "eighth note" or a quaver.

I really hope I explained it well enough. Music involves a lot of maths, but it's not too hard to understand if explained correctly.

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