Time Signatures: Common Beats in 4/4 Time

Today we are going to talk about how to maneuver in 4/4 time.  Now, if you don’t know much about time signatures, don’t worry.  You probably know more about 4/4 time than you realize.  In fact, if you’ve ever listened to the radio, or any popular song on iTunes, spotify, YouTube or wherever, then you’re pretty much already an expert because the vast majority of the songs that are popular western music are in 4/4.

Now, that’s great news, because if you can master this time signature, then you’ll have a head start on playing a bunch of your favorite songs and on creating popular music.

So, first lets talk about what a time signature is.  If you’re reading written music, the time signature appears at the beginning of each song and it tells you two very important things:

  1. It tells you the number of counts per measure.
  2. It tells you what type of note gets a single count.

Let’s check out the time signature symbol for 4/4.  The top number indicates the number of counts per measure, which is 4.  And, the bottom number tells you the type of note that receives a single count.  When I say “type” of note, I mean what note value, like quarter notes, eighth notes, whole notes, etc.

4/4 Time Signature

So, in 4/4 we can see that there are 4 counts per measure and that a quarter note gets a single count.  What that means if you’re counting along through each 4/4 measure is that you’ll count “1, 2, 3, 4” and in the next measure, again, you’ll count “1, 2, 3, 4.”  That will repeat until the end of the song or until the time signature changes.  Each of those counts is a quarter note.

Let’s go over a couple of common beats and take a look at how they appear when it’s written out in 4/4.


4/4 Basic Rock Beat

This is a common rock beat.  Throughout this beat, I played quarter notes between my snare and bass drum and eighth notes with my hi hat.  So, the snare and bass drum played 1, 2, 3, 4.  And the Hi hat played, 1+ 2 + 3 + 4 +.

Eighth Notes

This introduces a new method of counting for eighth notes that we haven’t seen yet.  When we count quarter notes in 4/4, we say “1, 2, 3, 4.”  But, because eighth notes are twice as fast as quarters (or in other words two eighth notes fit into the same amount of time as 1 quarter note), we need to add to our counting method.  Now, to account for the eighth notes we’ll keep “1, 2, 3, and 4” but between each of those counts we need to add the word “and.”  So, eighth notes are counted “1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +.”


Basic Jazz Beat

This is a very common jazz beat.  In this beat, the bass drum strikes on all 4 quarter notes and the snare drum strikes on the 2nd and 4th quarter notes.  In addition I also closed the hihat on the 2nd and 4th quarter and instead of playing straight eighth notes on the hihat, I switched to my ride cymbal and played quarters on counts 1 and 3 and a syncopated eighth note triplet pattern on 2 and 4.

Here’s the ride pattern by itself.

Jazz Ride Cymbal Pattern


Counting triplets is slightly different than counting quarters or eighth notes.  The triplets I played were based on eighth notes, which means that 3 triplets fit into the same amount of time as 2 eighth notes.  I’m not going to go into too much detail in this lesson, but to count these, you would say “1 triplet, 2 triplet, 3 triplet, 4 triplet.”  Or, I’ve also heard “1 + a, 2 + a, 3 + a, 4 + a.”


Funky Drummer Funk Beat

Last, this beat is one of the best known funk beats of all time: the Funky Drummer beat.  Here, the bass drum is playing 1 +, and then strikes again on the + of 3 and the e of 4.

Sixteenth Notes

But wait, what’s an “e”?  Well, this is part of the way we count sixteenth notes.  So, if I were to count sixteenth notes all the way through a measure, I’d say “1e+a, 2e+a, 3e+a, 4e+a.”  Each of those counts is a sixteenth note.  Two sixteenth notes fit into the same amount of time as 1 eighth note.  And, because 2 eighth notes fit into the same amount of time as 1 quarter note, 4 sixteenth notes fit into the same amount of time as a quarter note.

So, back to the beat, my hihat is playing all sixteenth notes and I open the hats on the e and the a of the 2nd quarter note.  Last, I’m hitting the snare drum on the 2nd quarter note, on the e of the 3rd quarter note, on the 4th quarter note, and on the a of the 4th quarter note.

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