Basic Time Signatures

Lisa Witt  /  Rhythm Theory  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

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A time signature provides you with the rhythmic rules for whatever you’re listening to or playing. If you want to be great at sight reading, you need to have a solid understanding of how time signatures work.

There are two numbers in a time signature. The top number indicates how many beats will be in each measure, and the bottom number indicates what kind of note will equal “one”. You can think of this bottom note as a fraction.

The most common time signatures for beginner piano players are:


In 4/4 time, there are four beats in each measure, and a quarter note is equal to one beat. The first beat is the strong beat, the second beat is weak, the third is medium, and the fourth is weak.


The 3/4 time signature gives us three beats in each measure. The first beat is strong, while beats 2 and 3 are weak. This gives this time signature the feeling of a waltz.


2/4 has two beats per measure. Beat 1 is strong and beat 2 is weak. This feels very much like a march.


This one is a bit different from the others. 6/8 has six beats per measure, and the beat that equals one is an 8th note. This means we can fit six 8th notes – or what is equal to six 8th notes – into each measure. You get groupings of three this way: strong weak weak medium weak weak. This provides a wonderful sense of movement that’s almost a rolling sensation, and is used in songs like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

These are the most common time signatures that a beginner piano player will encounter. Make sure to watch the video, where I’ll teach you a fun way to draw out rhythmic stories for yourself so you can experiment with how these time signatures work, sound, and feel.


Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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