Time signatures in layman's terms

Hi all, I’ve searched the forum to avoid a double post and couldn’t find anything so hopefully this is fine!

I’ve been trying to better understand how time signatures differ and how the knowledge can be applied to playing, but feel like I keep getting stuck at the same hurdles. So posting here to hopefully get slightly less textbook and more human response :sweat_smile:

I’ve been through the B2B lessons on it and have attempted a fair bit of research outside of that. I think I get the basics but the things that keep confusing me (and seem to be in 99% of all explanations) is when they mention about beats being “subdivided” or certain notes “getting the beat”. As soon as I see that my brain stops and I no longer understand the point the explanation is trying to make…

I think with this I’m also trying to understand the different feel between quarter or eighth notes in different timings… I need to get my head out of the realm of simple maths and not confusing the fact that there should be 8 eighth notes to make a whole if that make sense - this is music, not fractions! :joy:

Let me know if my question isn’t quite clear enough though… Thanks!


Not that I fully understand it all but my Dad taught me that the bottom # should usually be in multiples of 2 as this is what note gets counted as 1 beat, 4 is quarter note 8 is eighth note 2 is a half note, etc… The top number is just how many beats make up a bar.

Hope this helps or is a start to better understanding.

I originally learned and played by ear (just tell me what notes and I’ll find the beat from the music) so I’m still trying to figure all the reading music myself! Syncopation kills me still I just learn the notes and look away and feel the music to play it.


I’m a beginner as well, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, but I can give you my oversimplified version.

Think of the beat as the pulse of the song, like a heartbeat. This pulse is going to feel like it’s grouped into repeating patterns of 2 or 3 or 4 or 6 (etc) throughout the song.

The top number of the time signature is going to be the length of this pattern, and the bottom number is going to be whatever you want to call one pulse. If the pattern feels 3 pulses long, and you decide to call the pulse a quarter note (“quarter note gets the beat”), then the time signature is going to be 3/4.

And then someone will say, ok but what if I want to play a note that’s not exactly on a beat, but halfway between two beats? That’s when you’ll have to subdivide your quarter note into eighth notes in that part.

Hope that made some sense.


We actually just went over a technique in my class at berklee that Carol Kaye taught when she was visiting. Set your bass aside and hold one hand above your thigh, take your other hand and place it between your thigh and the other hand. Start at the top and then move your hand down to your thigh for the down beat (1), then up (for 2), etc. So 4/4 time its just like a metronome, but when the time goes up and you subdivide those beats so will the claps. Its just another method from what Josh shows in the course, but you get more of a sense of the pulse through the actual motion like the downbeat, etc.

Of course things get more interesting in say 12/8 time, where it can be like 4/4 but with triplets mixed in, a good example of this is the Allman Brothers version of Stormy Monday. The first step though is to get the feel before you even pic up the instrument.

Things get way out there with concepts like Charles Mingus’s rotary perception, where time is thought of as circular and you can play before, on top of, after the beat, etc.


Noted and taken with some salt… :sweat_smile: But thanks though @akos , that’s a really nice way of wording the explanation and feels a lot clearer to take in.

1 Like

Hail @renouf

First thing and most important thing first:

Forget time signatures, and just find the beat/pulse.
You have to be able to identify a beat or pulse of a song independent of the riff/melodies/rhythms that the musicians are playing with/around/off of that pulse.

Some good bass line examples are Another One Bites The Dust and Rapper’s Delight.
The bass starts out by playing the pulse/beat of the song 3 times. That pulse is what you can tap your foot to the entirety of the song.

The bass line then goes on to play other rhythms, but everything would have to be described in relationship to that main, steady pulse that is consistent throughout the song.

When people talk about time signatures, they are talking about the regular, repeating pattern that shows the way the pulse/beat of a song is organized.
Usually in groups of 4, sometimes 3, sometimes other numbers. 4 is the most common by far.

When we’re trying to explain how to play a bass line, the most complex thing to explain is the rhythm of a line. When to play these notes in time in relationship to each other. The language that is built around this is all very abstract and all stems from the greater abstraction that is written musical notation.

I would recommend starting at the beginning with sight reading and taking it a bit at a time. The jargon will make sense when the structure of written music is more clear.

As a player, the most important thing is that you can hear the pulse/beat of a song.
Also, that you can hear a piece of music/melody/bassline that someone plays/sings/tells you to play, and that you can reproduce it.

I always try and stress hearing and repeating first (like we do as kids with language) and then explaining/terms/abstractions/reading and writing a distant second.


That makes total sense; the latter is just a written attempt to explain the former. It’s the actual beat that matters.


My fave time sig thang:


@Gio that was perfect. Thank you so much for taking the time to write that up!

I was still able to play along with some of the workouts with different time signatures by feel but just felt at the end of them that I wasn’t getting out what I should’ve by completing them. I guess I was trying to bury myself uneccessarily deep in theory :joy:
As long as I’m recognising that pulse and am able to play the rhythms from that then… I know once I’ve found that as I start innately swaying and bobbing my head to it :grin:
Again, thank you!

And @itsratso I liked that vid, that guy is pretty slick haha

1 Like