If you’ve already devoured our blog about Rhythm, Tempo & Measure and feel ready to dive in a little deeper, here’s everything you need to know about time signatures, bar lines and repeat signs. Whether you’re here to learn to read music or just want to get a better feel for timing, you’ll find useful information here. This includes answers to the questions: how many time signatures are there? What’s the correct terminology? Why does one song use ‘quarter’ beats while the other runs on ‘eighth’ beats? How do I notate all of this when I write songs? What do D.C. and D.S. mean? – and much more!

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

First Off

  • Before digging in, we recommend that you read our Rhythm, Tempo & Measure blog, where we explain more basic things like the difference between quarter notes (crotchets) and eighth notes (quavers).
  • And don’t forget to check out the rest of our Music Theory Blog section!


Music can be foot-tapped, hand-clapped or simply slapped along to and if you pay attention when you do either, you might notice the urge to tap, clap or slap a little harder at certain moments. These moments are called accents in music theory. While they’re played ‘randomly’ in some songs, in most pop, rock, hip-hop and R&B tunes, you’ll hear an accent played at a steady rate, usually once every four beats – or claps. On the other hand, something like the waltz and most of its variants are played with the accent landing once every three beats, so: ONE – two – three – ONE – two – three, etc. This fixed sequence of accents and non-accents defines the metre. The various metre-based variations are what we call time signatures.


You might be wondering: “But what about styles that place the accents on every second and fourth count?” You’re right, this is called a backbeat. Turn on some classic rock or gospel music, listen closely and you’ll notice the drummer pounds a little harder on every second and fourth beat (one – TWO – three – FOUR). Also, taking the lyrics and bass lines into consideration, you’ll see that the most important parts of the song still land on or around every first beat. So, despite the fact that the loud accents are played every second and fourth beat, for some reason, this’ll still feel like a ONE – two – three – four kind of beat.

Time Signature

These are the most well known time signatures:

Four-Four (or Common) Time: notated as or

Three-Four Time: notated as

Bear in mind that the time signature of any composition is always indicated at the beginning of the piece. It’s never notated a second time unless the metre changes mid-song (more on this later).

The Top Number

The top number in any time signature indicates the most important thing of all: the number of beats per measure. As such, the 3/4 time signature is counted along in threes, so: ONE two three, ONE two three, etc. Needless to say, the same thing applies to 3/4, 3/8, 3/16 time signatures. At the same time, time signatures with a ‘4’ as the top number are all counted along in fours, so: ONE – two – three – four, ONE – two – three – four, etc.

The Bar Line

Next to the time signature indication at the beginning of the piece, notated songs include bars and bar lines to help you keep track of the beat. Here’s an example:

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

The Bottom Number

While the top number is undeniably the most important of the two, the lower number shouldn’t be overlooked since it tells us which note to count in. If you’ve studied our Rhythm, Tempo & Measure blog, you know the difference between quarter notes and eighth notes (crotchets and quavers). Now, when you come across the 3/4 time signature, the lower number tells us to count in quarter notes and that there’s always three quarter notes per measure:

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

In case of the 3/8 time signature, you’re to count in eighth notes with three eighth notes per measure:

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

Since both come down to the same rhythm (ONE – two – three, ONE – two – three), you might be wondering when to use one or the other. Technically, it’s all about force of habit. More seasoned musicians are simply used to using certain x/8 time signatures for fast songs and x/4 time signatures for slower rhythms. At the same time, it’s true that quarter notes in up-tempo music may well be eighth notes in slow tunes, it’s just that, again, musicians are creatures of habit.

Time Signatures

Let’s take a look at a few other time signatures.

Simple Time Signatures

Simple time signatures are single-accent rhythms, so:

or ONE – two – three – four
ONE – two – three
ONE – two
4/8, 3/8 etc. The 4/8 and 3/8 time signatures are rarely ever used. SInce the faster you start to count, the more the rhythm starts to feel like a compound time signature (more on these in a bit). However, what you can actually get away with is using these timings in pieces that are largely written in a 7/8 time signature, with only a few bars in 2/4. In this case, going with 4/8 is what most composers would do since this allows you to keep counting in eighths. Haven’t got a clue what we’re talking about? Don’t worry too much, these aren’t the most popular time signatures anyway.
or (alla breve or cut time) The odd one out in the bunch. While you’d expect this one to be counted at a slower pace or counted in twos, in reality, the 2/2 time signature is mostly used as an alternative for a 4/4 metre to limit the number of flagged notes that need to be notated, which tidies up the score a fair bit.

A Few Case Studies

4/4 Time Signature – Beat It (Michael Jackson):

3/4 Time Signature – My Favourite Things (The Sound of Music):

2/4 Time Signature – What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor? (all-time classic):

Compound Time Signatures

Composite time signature are time signatures with a strong accent (at the start) and then one or more less prominent accents:

The 6/8 time signature will feel more up-tempo compared to 3/4 and is practically always played in two groups of three notes. This is because going faster in 3/4 comes with the tendency to count in two groups of three with the strongest accent on the first count, so: ONE – two – three – four – five – six. Or, alternatively, in twos: ONE (-) (-) two (-) (-).
Counted along to in three groups of three (ONE – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine). There are other options as well; more on these later.
Four groups of three, so: ONE – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine – ten – eleven – twelve. Fun fact: the faster you start to count, the more it’ll feel like a quarter note beat. What’s more, drop the middle note in each group of three and you’ll have a full-on jazz, 4/4 swing rhythm going.

Irregular time signatures are compound time signatures that are counted along to in different groups of notes (e.g. a group of three and a group of two).

    The 5/4 time signature is often used for slower music and retains a kind of ‘single note feel’: ONE – two – three – four – five. The 5/8 time signature feels like groups of 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 and is counted along to like: ONE – two – three / four – five or ONE – two / three – four – five. If the music’s fast-paced like Bulgarian folk, the ‘groups’ will even start to feel like a short note plus a long note (group of 2 + groups of 3). Just remember there are no fixed rules; musicians will use time signatures as they see fit.
    For instance, ONE – two / three – four – five / six seven (2 + 3 + 2). Or any other subdivision. Again, if it feels like you’re counting in groups or if the tempo’s up, go with 7/8 instead of 7/4.
The 9/8 time signature can be counted along to in three groups of three or used in irregular form, so: ONE – two / three – four / five – six / seven – eight – nine (2 + 2 + 2 + 3).
This timing can be used as an irregular time signature (e.g. ONE – two – three / four – five – six / seven – eight (3 + 3 +2)), but it’s also often used in compositions that incorporate multiple time signatures. Say a given song has a 7/8 time signature at its core but features several bars in 4/4. In this case, the parts in 4/4 will be notated as 8/8 so you can continue to count in eighth notes.
    … There are a lot more time signatures we could look at and illustrate but you should now have a general idea of how they work.

More Case Studies

6/8 Time Signature – We Are the Champions (Queen):

9/8 Time Signature – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J.S. Bach) – Regular note division (3 + 3 + 3):

12/8 Time Signature – So This Is Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon):

5/4 Time Signature – Theme from ‘Mission: Impossible’:

5/8 Time Signature – Paidushko (Bulgarian dance) – Good luck trying to count along:

7/4 Time Signature – Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel) – Feels more like ‘single notes’ rather than groups of two and three:

7/8 Time Signature – Unsquare Dance (Dave Brubeck Quartet) – Groups of 2 + 2 + 3:

9/8 Time Signature – Blue Rondo à la Turk (Dave Brubeck Quartet) – Alternates irregular 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 and regular 3 + 3 + 3; also includes an extensive part in 4/4:

8/8 Time Signature – The 6th Dance from “6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm” (Bartók) – Irregular (3 + 3 + 2):

So Tempo and Time Signature are Related?

We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again. Most scores these days include a tempo indication so you know exactly how fast the piece needs to be played (e.g ♩ = 120, in which case you set your metronome to 120 BPM and make sure every clap is equal to a single quarter note). The maths: 120 quarter notes per minute = 60 seconds / 120 quarter notes = 0.5 seconds per quarter note.

In classical music, you’re more likely to come across Italian tempo-terms such as adagio and allegro, but we’re saving these to cover another day. Back to time signatures. As explained, faster songs and pieces that can be clearly counted along to in ‘groups’ will usually have an 8 as the lower number (e.g. 7/8). In case of slower-paced songs or when the rhythm feels like it’s made up of single notes, composers tend to go with a 4 as the lower number. Remember: there are always exceptions.

Metre Changes

Since the rules of music aren’t the same as judicial law, musicians can basically get away doing whatever they want. Sure, a bit of structure is great since that’s exactly what listeners need, but if a composer or songwriter decides that they want to change up the time signature mid-song, they’re free to do so. In fact, they sometimes do and this can actually sound good. See:

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (Beatles). The verses are in ¾ while the chorus in the 4/4; first chorus starts at 0:48:

Money (Pink Floyd). The song is in 7/4 but switches to 4/4 for a while starting 2:55:

Bar Lines

We’ve briefly mentioned bar lines already. Let’s take a closer look.

Single bar line: indicates the starting and ending points per measure.
Double bar lines: used to indicate changes such as:

  • The end of part (in case a piece consists of two or more parts).
  • Key, tempo or time signature changes.
  • Double bar lines are also sometimes used with D.S. and D.C. (more on these terms in a bit).
Thin + thick bar line: placed at the end of a composition.
Thick + thin bar line with colon: used to indicate a repetition (see below).

Repeat Signs

It’s perfectly normal to repeat certain parts in a piece of music. Take pop music for example, where the chorus is repeated a few times and the verses are very similar. Classical music is no different. Play a little Mozart and you’ll be constantly repeating the same parts over and over. Either way, playing from sheet music simply means you’re likely to be playing repeats. After all, it saves composers and music publishers quite a bit of time, effort and ink not having to notate any identical parts, keeping that stack of paperwork that you’ve got to carry around down to a minimum. Not only that, you won’t have to turn pages as often and the scores end up looking a lot cleaner and easier to read. The question is: how are repeats notated?


A repetition is usually indicated by a thick line + thick line + colon bar line at the start and a colon + thin line + thick line at the end. In the example below (click to enlarge the image), you start by playing A + B, followed by the C + D + E part you’re supposed to play twice. In short, here you’d play: A B – C D E – C D E.

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

Repeat with Alternate Ending (Prima and Seconda Volta)

This is the same story as before with one important difference: the ‘E’ measure is only played the first time as indicated by the number 1 (called Prima volta). During the repeat, you’d play number 2 instead of number 1 (measure F instead of E). The second part is called the Seconda volta. In short, here you’d play: A B – C D E – C D F.

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

It may be that you’re ‘asked’ to repeat a certain part three or more times, in which case the numbers will continue going up. Instead of just a 1, it might say “1, 2”, which means ending with the “1, 2” part the first two times and only playing the “3” part during the final repeat.

D.C., D.S., Fine, Coda and Segno

More Italian words! Seeing all of these signs, symbols and terms on a piece of sheet music can be quite confusing. Here’s how they work:
D.C. stands for “Da capo” and means: “from the start”. In other words: play everything all over again from the start.
D.C. al fine: from the start up to the fine sign. In other words: start back at the top but don’t go past the fine sign. Here, the fine-sign marks the end of the composition.

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

D.C. al coda means: from the start up to the coda sign (coda means tail). Here, the difference with ‘fine’ lies in the fact that you’re supposed to skip a part. There are always two coda signs and as soon as you encounter the first coda sign while playing the repeat, you’re supposed to ‘jump’ to the second coda sign, skipping the part in between. From the second coda sign onwards, you’re entering the end of the piece (the coda, or tail).

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

D.S. stands for ‘Dal segno’ and means: “from the sign”. In other words: repeat everything after the segno-sign (so not from the beginning as you would in case of a D.C.). Just like D.C., D.S. can be combined with ‘al fine’ and ‘al coda’.Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

Bear in mind that there can be repeats within repeats when playing D.C. or D.S. and that these repeats within repeats aren’t usually played a second time. In other words: play the piece including the ‘normal’ repeats. Then, when you bump into D.C. or D.S. at the end, start back at the beginning or at the segno-sign without playing the repeats a second time.


The simile symbol means: play what you played during the previous measure:

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

The simile symbol can also come with two little lines, where it means: repeat the last two measures:

Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained

You’ve made it! Got any questions, remarks or additions? Leave a comment below!

See Also

» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale
» Drum notation 101: Tips & tricks for beginners
» Learning to Read Guitar Tabs

» Educational Music Books
» All Music Books
» Manuscript Paper
» Sheet Music Accessories
» Musical Instruments

2 responses
  1. Anthony says:

    hi there, great article, thanks very much. I’m trying to work out the time signature of this song, an you help?


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