Music makes us laugh and cry, march, dance and tap our feet. Besides being one of the great artistic accomplishments of humanity, music is a mathematical construct. Songs are made up of measures, notes and rests. How the notes and rests are played within the measures of a song depends on its time signature. A song can be written in many time signatures, including 2/2 and 4/4.
A song is divided up into measures. A measure, also known as a bar, is a section within a song with a specific time signature. The time signature is determined by how many beats are in each measure and which type of note gets a beat. Some types of notes that may get the beat are eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes and whole notes. Sometimes the beat is not on a note but on a rest. A rest is a pause in the measure. The most frequently used time signatures are 4/4 and 3/4, though 2/2 and 6/8 time are not unusual.
Because many traditional songs were written in 4/4 time, this time signature is known as common time. The quarter note gets the beat and there are four beats for each measure. Songs with 4/4 time are written for many different genres, including rock, disco, samba, rumba and Motown. No matter what category a song is in, as long as it has four beats per measure and the quarter note receives the beat, its time signature is 4/4.
Also known as cut time or cut common time, 2/2 time has two beats per measure with a half note having the beat. Probably the best-known song in 2/2 is “Jingle Bells.” A half note, two quarter notes or four eighth notes get the beat. Each measure has some combination of these notes to make up the two beats per measure that 2/2 time requires.
Other Time Signatures
When the waltz was introduced in the 1700s, a new time signature was created: 3/4 time. This time signature has three beats per measure, and quarter notes get the beat. This creates an “oom-pa-pa” cadence to the song. “Rock-a-bye Baby” is a good example of 3/4 time. A 6/8 time signature is also popular; one example is “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson. Other time signatures in use today include 12/8 and 5/4. Pink Floyd's “Money” has an unusual time signature of 7/8.
A freelance writer for more than 30 years, D.M. Gutierrez has had nonfiction, fiction and poetry published in women's, mystery, academic, children's, disability and teen print publications and websites including "Psychological Reports" and "Highlights for Children." She has an advanced degree in psychology from the University of California at Davis.