How to Determine the Time Signature and Tempo of a Song

Step 2

Determine the Time Signature and Tempo of the Song

The time signature must be determined in order to count how many bars there are in a song (which we will cover in Step 4). The three most common time signatures are: 4/4 , 3/4 , and 6/8. The top number tells you how many beats to count in a measure (another word for “bar”), and the bottom number represents the type of note that gets the beat; the bottom number can be a 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, or 64. A “1” equals a whole note, a “2” equals a half note, a “4” equals a quarter note, an “8” equals an eighth note, a “16” equals a sixteenth note, etc.

To determine the time signature of a song, listen to the placement of the snare drum. If the song is in 4/4, you will hear the snare drum on beats 2 and 4. If the song is in 3/4, you will hear the snare drum on beats 2 and 3, or just beat 3. If the song is in 6/8, you will hear the snare drum on beat 4. Listening to the musical phrases in the song can also help you determine and confirm the time signature. Once you have determined the time signature of your song, write it on the upper right-hand side of your chart. The following example shows where the snare is played in the three most common time signatures.  

4/4 = 1 2 3 4 3/4 = 1 2 3, or 1 2 3     6/8  = 1 2 3 4 5 6

Tempo

Tempo is the speed at which the song is played, and it be can be slow, medium, or fast. Before charting, first determine the tempo of the song using a metronome. Play the recording, start the metronome, and try to match the tempo of the song as closely as you can with the click of the metronome, turning the click faster or slower to match the recording. When the click matches the beat of the recording, write the beats per minute (BPM) in the upper right-hand side of the chart, below the time signature. Some metronomes have a tap button that makes finding the tempo fast and easy; all you need to do is tap along with the song, and the metronome will display the tempo you are tapping. Using the tap button is a quick and efficient way to figure out a new tempo if the singer or another band member would like to perform the song faster or slower.