Gah! What? 

I’m not sure my title is actually grammatically correct- a time signature “figure-outer” sounds like a job description, when what we are dealing with is more of a figurer-outer– a method to help the uninitiated to figure out time signatures. But since neither term existed until I made them up two minutes ago, I think I’m going to go with the one that looks better in the headline. The extra r in figurer is just a bridge too far for unfamiliar, made-up terms.

So. If we can proceed unhindered by the grammarians in my head, this is something that comes up often on the discussion forum– there are a lot of self-taught drummers there seeking help with basic musicianship. I’ve tried to make this as easy as possible for people with minimal musical knowledge, but I still am always surprised at the variety of misconceptions out there, and I can’t anticipate them all. Most of the people who actually need something like this should contact a teacher- this topic can be put to rest in a single 30 minute lesson. Most likely this piece will be most helpful to inexperienced teachers who haven’t settled on a way to communicate this to students yet, or for me when I need to deal with this question over the Internet again and again. So here we go:

1.   Focus your attention on a piece of music. Start with something easy. Turn on AM radio or buy some records if you listen to nothing but prog. Relax. Open your collar. Top hat and cane put away neatly. Remove spats and cravat.

2. Tap your foot in an even tempo along with the music, wherever it feels comfortable to you. It will likely be anywhere between the speed of a slow-yet-consistent saunter (or pimp roll, if you prefer) up to a brisk jog. We’ll call that the beat. If you find it difficult or impossible to tap your foot evenly to a piece, set it aside and choose a different one.

3. Count the following out loud along with your foot tapping, and see which fits with the music: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, or 1-2.
Count them over and over, so for example, when you’re doing the last one, you would be saying “1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-etc”. (Yes, that is bleeding obvious, but again, you’d be surprised at what is not obvious to a lot of people.)

One of those should just feel right along with the music. If none of them does, you can either try counting up to higher numbers, like 5, 6, 7, or 9, or you can set the piece aside and try something easier.

We’re going to call pieces where 1-2-3-4 works “in 4”; where 1-2-3 feels right we’ll say they’re “in 3”; for 1-2, we’ll call it “in 2”.

1-2-3-4 = “in 4”
1-2-3 = “in 3”
1-2 = “in 2”

Quiz One

Count through the following:

Example A

Example B

Example C

Scroll to the bottom for the answers.

4. Determine how the beat is divided- into two parts or three. Any piece you should be dealing with is going belong to one of two camps- “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, or “Pop Goes The Weasel”. The former has each beat divided in two, while the latter has them divided in three. Take a moment and force your little sister to sing each of those for you, while you count “1-&-2-&” (during Twinkle) and “1-trip-let-2-triplet” (during Weasel). For our present purpose, it isn’t strictly necessary for you to be able to count the subdivisions- you just need to be able to hear the difference between the even, march-like feel of Twinkle and the jauntier, rounded Weasel.

You can call Twinkle/1-&-2-& tunes “duple”, or “simple” or “straight-8th” or “even-8th”. I’ll just keep calling them “Twinkle” because it’s fun.

You can call Weasel/1-trip-let-2-trip-let tunes “triplet”, or “triple” or “compound”. I’ll call them “Weasel” because it’s even more fun.

(I should note simple and compound are the actual correct terms. Duple/triple/triplet are commonly used, but not strictly correct the way we’re using them here).

Quiz Two

Apply steps 2 and 3, then step 4. Tap your foot, count, then determine Twinkle or Weasel:

Example D

Example E

Example F

You should now scroll to the bottom and review the answers before proceeding. Make sure you’re solid on what we’ve done so far. 

5. Determine the time signature.

You will need a rudimentary grasp of rhythmic values, and know what a “measure” or “bar” of music is. If you understand that a half note is twice as long as a quarter note is twice as long as an eighth note, and that a measure is a container-of-notes of indeterminate size, we’re good to go.

The time signature tells you how big the container is by telling you how many of what kind of note will fit in it. Just like the name “55-gallon drum” tells you that the drum has the space to hold 55 units, and that the units are gallons. The top number of the signature tells you how many “units” there are per measure, and the bottom tells you the size of each “unit”. So a time signature of 2/4 means that each measure is two quarter notes long; a signature of 6/8 means the measure is six eighth notes long. 2/2 means the measure is two half notes long. Clear?

The time signature also indicates where you’re going to tap your foot- where the beat falls. In the */4 and */2 signatures, you tap your foot on the quarter notes and half notes, respectively. The */8 signatures are the triplet/”Weasel” meters, and you tap your foot on every third 8th note. In 6/8 you would tap your foot on 1 and 4: 1 2 3 4 5 6.

So knowing this, let’s figure out how to translate things the answers from Quiz 2 (“Weasel, in 2”, “Twinkle, in 3” etc) into time signatures.

The Twinkle meters are easy enough: take your “in *” number and put a 4 in the bottom.

“Twinkle in 2” becomes 2/4.
“In 4” is 4/4.
“In 3”? 3/4.

The most common exception to this will be 2/2. Experience will tell you when that is the case.

The Weasel meters require a little bit of 3rd grade math: multiply the “in *” number by 3, then slap an 8 in the bottom.

For “Weasel in 2”: 2 x 3 = 6, with an 8 in the bottom makes 6/8.
“In 3” is 9/8 (3 x 3 = 9, 8 in the bottom).
“In 4” is 12/8 (4 x 3 = you-know-what, 8 in the bottom).

Quiz Three

Translate the asinine terminology we’ve been using into a time signature:

1. Twinkle in 2
2. Twinkle in 3
3. Weasel in 4
4. Twinkle in 4
5. Weasel in 3
6. Weasel in 2

Let’s also do this in reverse. Express the following meters into above-type terms:

7. 4/4
8. 2/4
9. 6/8
10. 3/4
11. 12/8
12. 9/8

So, that’s it. You should now forget that you ever learned to think of time signatures using the terms “weasel” and “twinkle” (at least forget I’m the one who told you to use them) and use the correct ones I mentioned in the piece. The meters we’ve covered will apply to the vast majority of musical situations, and you can figure out many of the ones we haven’t covered, like 3/8, 6/4, 5/4, and 7/4.

Quiz Answers

Quiz One
Ex. A: 1-2-3-4, “in 4”
Ex. B: 1-2, “in 2”
Ex. C: 1-2-3, “in 3”

Quiz Two
Ex. A: in 4, Weasel
Ex. B: in 2, Twinkle
Ex. C: in 3, Twinkle
Ex. D: in 4, Weasel
Ex. E: in 2, Twinkle
Ex. F: in 2, Weasel

Quiz Three

1. 2/4
2. 3/4
3. 12/8
4. 4/4
5. 9/8
6. 6/8

7. Twinkle in 4
8. Twinkle in 2
9. Weasel in 2
10. Twinkle in 3
11. Weasel in 4
12. Weasel in 3