How to read the time signature of sheet music in practice

Now that you’ve learned the time signatures and note values of sheet music, let’s show you how you can do it in practice. Our goal is to take this knowledge to real life, we don’t want you to leave here without improving your musicality. There are some tips below on how to put everything you’ve learned into practice.

When you play a piece of music that has several figures mixed, for example:

lot of notes

Think first about how long a quarter note lasts using a metronome (the “bpm” of the quarter note will be written in the sheet music, so set the metronome to play that tempo). Now, let’s say you want to know how long that note that is marked as a sixteenth note will last:

sixteenth note

To get this tempo right, divide this quarter note in your head into 4 parts (clap your hands 4 times each time the metronome plays). The time between a clap of hands and another will be the length of that note. To find out the length of this eighth note:

eight note

Use the same division you did before, but now let that note last for the span of two claps instead of just one.

To make this marking easier, try to count from 1 to 4 mentally instead of clapping 4 times. For example, you know that the metronome will be “hammering” the sound “beep, beep, beep …” at constant and programmed time intervals. This time interval corresponds to a quarter note in this case. Between one “beep” and another, you will count to 4 and start counting again with each new “beep”, like this:

metronome counting 4 times

The time of a sixteenth note, therefore, will be the length of your count from 1 to 2 (remember that the time interval between one number and the other of your count corresponds to a sixteenth note, as you divided a quarter note into 4 parts).

The time of an eighth note will be the length of its count from 1 to 3, as this corresponds to two sixteenth notes (this is the sum of the intervals from 1 to 2 + interval from 2 to 3).

The duration of a quarter note is the count from 1 to 1 again, as one quarter note corresponds to 4 sixteenth notes. Let’s check how many sixteenth note intervals we have in counting from 1 to 1 again:

  • From 1 to 2
  • From 2 to 3
  • From 3 to 4
  • From 4 to 1

We can clearly see that there are 4 intervals, totaling one quarter note, as we wanted to demonstrate.

This method helps our mental counting of the times a lot, since dividing a time in 4 parts is relatively simple to achieve (as long as the quarter note tempo is not too fast). That way, finding the length of all notes and rests of the song will be easy.

The same method can be used to find the other note values, since you just need to make more divisions. For example, to find a thirty-second note, you just need to divide the interval between one “beep” and another of the metronome into 8 parts. Or, to put it another way, it would be enough to use half the length you would use for the sixteenth note.

Go to: Triplets and Sextuplets

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