If you’ve opened a piece of music or looked through your children’s music, you’ve probably noticed some numbers at the beginning of the piece. They look like this:
four-four time signature

The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure in your piece.

(Measures are simply the way music is divided up into a rhythmic pattern). So, a four on the top, as seen in the time signature above, means you’ll count like this: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 throughout your song.

If I change the top number, you can probably figure out how you’ll be counting throughout the song.
three-four time signature
Take a guess. Give it a try. Really. Did you try it?

If you guessed 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, you’re right! If you guess something else, contact me and we can talk it through!

Ok, so top numbers are easy. And, the good news is, bottom numbers are just slightly more complicated. But, they’re just complicated enough that it’s not unusual for me to get the question

What does the bottom number in a time signature mean?

The bottom number indicates which type of note is getting the beat.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

4 = Quarter Note
2 = Half Note
8 = Eighth Note

(note: You probably will never have a time signature with any other number on the bottom. So, if you memorize the cheat sheet above, you’ll be well covered.)

Here’s a little bit more explanation on how the numbers work together:

If your time signature is 4/4, you can fit 4 quarter notes into one measure. So, when you say 1-2-3-4, each of those numbers (beats) will be a quarter note.
four-four sample
Similarly, if your time signature is 3/4, you can fit 3 quarter notes into one measure.
three-four sample
If your time signature is 6/8, you can fit 6 eighth notes into one measure. You’ll count 1-2-3-4-5-6 and each of those beats will be an eighth note.

It looks like this:

six eight example

You may also see a 2/2 time signature. In this case, two half notes fit into every measure – 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.
two-two sampleYou may (correctly) figure out that it looks alot like a 4/4 time signature. The differences are subtle and nuanced, so I’m not going to take the time to write them all out here. If you just have to know about those nuances, contact me and we can talk about it specifically.

Ask your questions or suggest other music theory questions in the comments below!