Simple And Compound Time Signatures

General time signature theory has been discussed in a previous lesson. Here you will learn about the two main types of time signature and the differences between them.

It would be worth reading our lesson on Time Signatures before starting this lesson.

Time signatures are split into two categories, 'simple' and 'compound', and there are some big differences between how these are played.


Simple Time Signatures

Simple time signatures are based on quarter notes. Around these quarter notes eighth notes are grouped in twos or fours and sixteenth notes in groups of four.

Most simple time signatures have a '4' for the bottom number. Examples of these are 4/4, 2/4, 3/4 and 5/4.

For some examples of simple time patterns check out the exercises in our Introduction to Grooves, Introduction to Fills and Single Stroke Roll Orchestrations lesson series. All of these patterns have 'simple' time signatures.


Compound Time Signatures

Compound time signatures are based on dotted quarter notes. Eighth notes are subdivided into groups of three and sixteenth notes into groups of six.

Compound time signatures generally have an '8' on the bottom. Examples of these are 6/8, 5/8, 7/8, 9/8 and 12/8.

For some examples of compound time patterns see the exercises in our Grooves In 6/8 and Fills In 6/8 lessons. All of these patterns have 'compound' time signatures.


Play through some of these exercises and note the difference in the feel of the different categories of time signatures.

Just to confuse the issue, time signatures with a '4' on the bottom can be compound and time signatures with an '8' on the bottom can be simple. When identifying whether a time signature is simple or compound look at the grouping of the eighth notes. If they are beamed mostly in threes the time signature is probably compound. If they are mostly in twos or fours it is most likely simple.

Test how much you've learned by taking our Simple Or Compound Quiz.