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The time signature on a musical staff tells you the meter of the music by defining both the number of beats in a measure and the type of note that fills one beat.

In common notation , the time signature appears at the beginning of a piece of music, right after the key signature . Unlike the key signature, which is on every staff , the time signature will not appear again in the music unless the meter changes. The meter of a piece is a repetitive rhythmic pulse that underlies the music. The time signature is the symbol that tells you what meter is being used in a piece of music and what types of note ) are being used to write it out.

The time signature appears at the beginning of the piece of music, right after the clef symbol and key signature.

Beats and measures

Music happens over a period of time, so a very common way to organize music is to divide that time into short periods of the same length, using audible pulses called beats . Each pulse is a beat , and the regular, predictable pulse of a piece of music is the beat . The beat is created when the musicians do things (like hit a drum, strum a guitar, or start singing a word) at very regular intervals. This creates an audible, predictable pulse that helps the musicians to coordinate what they are doing so that they sound good together. The predictability and audibility of the beat also allows others to join in. As soon as listeners can "feel the beat," they can clap hands, snap fingers, tap their feet, nod their heads, march, dance, or sing along "in time" with the music (in other words, coordinated with the musicians). Anything that happens during the audible pulse (a clap or drum hit, for example), as well as anything that starts during a pulse (such as a sung word, or a note on a flute or violin) is said to be on the beat . Of course, things can happen in between the beats, too, but the timing for those is also coordinated using the beats; for example, a note might begin at exactly the halfway point between two beats.

Not all music has beats and a time signature. In music with a free rhythm or meter, there is no time signature, and no regular pulse to the music; the musicians are free to play or sing a note at whatever time they feel is best. Other pieces may have a written time signature, to help the musicians keep track of time, but the musical events in the piece do not give it an audible beat.

Listen to excerpts A, B, C and D. Can you clap your hands, tap your feet, or otherwise move "to the beat"? Is there a piece in which it is easier or harder to feel the beat?

When music is organized into beats, it makes sense to write it down that way. In common notation , the composer assigns a particular kind of note to be one beat long. For example, if "a quarter note gets a beat," then playing many quarter notes in a row would mean playing a new note on every beat. The quarter note is most likely to play this role, but any type of note can get the "this is one beat" designation.

In most metered music, some of the beats are stronger (louder, more powerful, more noticeable, or busier), than others, and there is a regular pattern of stronger and weaker beats, for example, strong-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak, or strong-weak-strong-weak. So the beats are organized even further by grouping them into bars , or measures . (The two words mean the same thing.) For example, for music with a beat pattern of strong-weak-weak-strong-weak-weak, or 1-2-3-1-2-3, a measure would have three beats in it. The time signature tells you two things: how many beats there are in each measure, and what type of note gets a beat.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Music fundamentals 2: rhythm and meter. OpenStax CNX. Jun 10, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10716/1.1
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