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Common Time or 4/4 Time

Common time is part 14 in a 31 part series on musical notation and basic music theory. Before we understand common time, we must first understand what time signature (also called meter) is. Every piece of music has it.

It’s the numbers we see at the beginning of a piece of music. It tells us how many beats are in each musical bar and what note is receiving the beat or "pulse".

Let's look at an example to illustrate time signature or meter.

What does the 4/4 stand for in this piece of music?

In this example we have a 4/4 time signature, also referred to as "common time" because much of the music we hear is in this meter.

This meter is popular in rock, country, pop and jazz music! It's generally the first meter we learn as it's the easiest to dance to. It's the meter people can easily clap to :-)

The top number tells us how many beats per measure. In the above example you'll notice there are 2 quarter notes each worth 1 beat and a half note worth 2 beats in the first measure (all together that is 4 beats). In the second measure there is only a whole note which is equal to 4 beats.

The bottom number is more confusing. It tells us which note receives the beat. In this case we are referring to the beat as the "pulse" of the music.

We have already established that a quarter note is worth one beat, but in this example there is also a quarter note "pulse". The name quarter note comes from 1/4. If you think of a whole note=a dollar, than you can think of a quarter note=a quarter or 1/4.

If a song was in 2/4 meter, it would mean that the quarter note gets the pulse and there are 2 beats per measure...make sense?


Essentially, there are 3 pulses in music. There is the quarter note pulse-1/4, the eighth note pulse-1/8 and the half note pulse-1/2. Sometimes you'll have a sixteenth note pulse-1/16, but it's not as common as the others.

Remember, that it's the bottom number of these fractions (above) that we are talking about when determining what the pulse is.

NOTE: Even if a piece of music has never been written down on sheet music, it still has a pulse. It has groupings of beats that can be identified as some kind of meter to the human ear.

Let's explore more time signatures. Next up...waltz time or 3/4 time!

Continue to Part 15, Waltz Time or 3/4 Time

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