Learn to Read Drum Music – Part 5 – Time Signatures Explained

Hey Drummers! Welcome to part 5 of my How to Read Drum Music Series. This post will be covering a new topic, so if you haven’t already, you might want to go back and check out the other posts you’ve missed.

Up to this point, you should have a good idea of what the majority of the notes you will see are. You should know how to recognize them, read them, and put them in different combinations with each other. There is a lot more to learn, but we have made great progress so far.

This post’s topic is going to depart from learning what specific notes are, and moving into a slightly different subject: The Time Signature

What is a Time Signature?

44 Time Signature

Time Signature is a collection of numbers that musicians use to determine exactly how many beats are in a bar, and how long a beat is going to be.

A time signature is not just special to drummers, but is necessary for all musicians. Knowing what the time of a piece of music is keeps all musicians on the same page allowing them to play together.

The Time signature always goes after the clef at the beginning of the music. If you recall from Part I, as drummers we use the percussion clef:

How to Read Drum Music

What do the Numbers in a Time Signature Mean?

Whether you can see them or not, there are always two numbers in a time signature. These two numbers are very important, and can completely change depending on what’s there.

Up until now, we have only seen a time signature with two 4’s (One four placed on top of another four). This is commonly referred to as “four four” time, or 4/4 time.

With time signatures, the top number always indicates how many beats are in a bar, and the bottom number will always be the value of ONE beat:

Basic Time Signature Explained

For example, if we are in 4/4 time, The first number tells us that there are exactly four beats in one bar of music. The second number tells us that the value of one of those beats will be a quarter note (Think “1/4 note”).

So, if we are in 4/4 time, that means that you can fit a maximum of 4 quarter notes into one bar.

Four Quarter Notes

Different Time Signatures

Now, what happens if you see different numbers in the time signature? Well, there is no end to the number of time signatures that can be used, but in about 99% of the music you read, there are only a few you’ll need to know.

Different Types of Time Signatures

The top number can be anywhere from 1 to 100 and beyond. This is because there is no rule saying that a bar cannot be 100 quarter notes long. Obviously that is a bit extreme, and in most western music, you’ll rarely see a number above 12.

The next thing to remember is that the bottom number can only represent a note that actually exists. So far we’ve looked at whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes. Another way to look at them is 1/1 note, 1/2 note, 1/4 note, 1/8 note, and 1/16 note.

Notice that every note we have is a multiple of 2? This means that the bottom number can only be a 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc… The good news is you will never see a 3, 5, or a 7 on the bottom because 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes do not exist.

Examples of Common Time Signatures

Here are some examples of time signatures you might come across. I’ve also placed the notes inside each of the bars so you can visually see the value correlation:

Time Signature Examples


What does the “C” Mean?

If you’ve ever been looking at drum music and noticed that instead of numbers there is a letter “C”, don’t worry, these are just older ways of writing time signatures:

What is Common and Cut Time

In the picture above, after 4/4, you see the letter “C”. This letter is the exact same as 4/4 time, and is known as common time. Since 4/4 is probably the most use time signature in Western music, some writers like to use the letter “C” instead.

Similar to common time is Cut Time, which is seen as the “C” with a line through it. You may also recognize that symbol as the “cent” sign. Cut time is actually identical to 2/2 time, meaning that there are 2 half notes allowed in a bar. It gets it name because if you were to cut a 4/4 bar in half, you would end up with 2/2. Clever right?

Review of Time Signatures

As a recap, let’s review what we’ve learned so far:

  • When looking at time signatures, the top number always means how many beats are in a bar, and the bottom number shows the value of one beat.
  • For example, if the bottom number of a time signature is 16, we know that the value of one beat is a 16th note
  • The top number of a time signature can be any number, but will most often be between 1 and 12
  • The bottom number of a time signature can either be a 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc… as long as we stick with multiples of 2
  • a time signature with the letter “C” means “Common Time”, or 4/4
  • A time signature with the “cent” sign means “Cut Time”, or 2/2

Time to Test Those Skills

Now we can test your skills and see what you’ve got. Below, I have included 10 examples of different time signatures.

If you can look at them and determine how many notes are in each bar as well as what counts as one note, then congratulations, you have a good understanding of what time signatures are.

Time Signature Final Exam

If you’re stumped and can’t figure it out, click here to see the answers! There’s nothing wrong with taking a quick peek.

So how’d you do? I enjoy time signatures because it’s fun to try and figure out how many beats are going to fit in each bar.

How are things going? Do you feel like you’re getting better at understanding drum music? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy Drumming!

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