How to Easily Play 2/4 and 3/4 Time Signatures

Time Signatures are a very important ingredient in understanding how to count and play a piano piece or exercise.

Once we have learned how many counts or beats each unique type of note gets in the general sense of rhythm, we can understand how to apply a time signature to those different notes easily.

This lesson is going to help us learn and count a 2/4 time signature and a 3/4 time signature.

If you notice, both of these time signatures share one thing in common and have one thing different from each other.

First, let's have a quick review of what a time signature is and what it tells us.

Step 1: Remember What a Time Signature Tells Us

Before we get started with learning these two new time signatures, let's review what a time signature tells us.

The time signature will always be on the far left side of each line of your music and in each clef.

There are 2 numbers in a time signature placed on top of the other. Each number tells us a different thing in terms of how we are going to count what we're about to play.

  • The top number tells us "how many"...meaning how many beats or counts we're going to have in each measure.

But we have to know what kind of note we're applying the beat to because different types of notes get different counts.

  • The bottom number tells us "of what"...meaning what kind of note is going to get the beat.

So we can read a time signature starting with the top number and then go to the bottom number like this:

  • How many of what are we counting in each measure?

Now, let's look at the 3/4 time signature and then we'll tackle the 2/4 one.

Step 2: 3/4 Time Signature

In the first image, you can see the 3/4 time signature on the far left-hand side of the first line of music. This is where it will always be and in regular sheet music (not an example like this) you will find it on each line).

If we read this time signature by asking: "how many of what"...we get the answer of:

  • We have 3 (top number) beats in each measure and the quarter note (bottom number - 4) gets the beat or count.
  • So there are 3 quarter beats in each measure.

How do we count this in our music when we have different note values in each measure?

Take a look at the 2nd image. The first few measures are counted out here and the remaining measures I'll go over with you in the video portion of this lesson - in the last step.

  • 1st measure - all quarter notes so each one gets a beat
  • 2nd measure - all 8th notes. Remember that 8th notes get 1/2 a beat, so we have to have two 8th notes for every quarter note. We count 8th notes by saying "1+, 2+, 3+, 4+". The "+" stands for the word "and" when you are counting.
  • 3rd measure - this time we have a mix of one 1/2 note and 1 quarter note. Remember that a half note gets 2 beats and the quarter note gets one beat.

The remaining measure we will go over at our pianos in the last step of this lesson. There can be any number of combined note values in a given measure...the important thing to always remember is that you have to have the same number of beats in those different combinations as you do in the top number of the time signature.

Now let's look at the 2/4 time signature which is very similar and yet has one important difference. Can you see what it is already?

Step 3: The 2/4 Time Signature

The common bond - is the bottom number.

  • The bottom number tells us in this instance, that the quarter note is going to get the beat. This is just what we did when we used the 3/4 time signature.

The difference - is the top number.

  • The top number in this instance tells us that we're going to have 2 quarter beats in each measure instead of 3 like we did with the 3/4 time signature.

The counting itself is not different: quarter notes still get 1 beat, 8th notes still get 1/2 a beat, and so on.

  • But how many beats we count in each measure is different. We count 2 instead of 3.

Any time you find a 4 as the bottom number in a time signature, you will know that the quarter note is going to get the beat. The bottom number isn't always a 4, but when it is, the quarter note gets the beat.

Now, let's go to our pianos to go through each of these time signatures as I count each of the measures seen in this portion of the lesson and several more examples that include 16th notes and different combinations of note values.

Step 4: Come Practice With Me!

This part of the lessons is intended to really deepen your understanding of both the 2/4 & the 3/4 time signatures through practical application at your keyboard.

We'll count each one using different note values and play them on the piano as well.

Once you've gone through both parts of this lesson, try picking up some other music that you've never seen before and take a look at the time signature.

  • Find ones that have "4" as the bottom number and then see what the top number is. (It will usually be a 2, 3, or 4)

Then try counting a few of the measures to see how easily you can do it now that you understand how to count and apply the required number of beats to the different note values in each measure!

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