Time Signature 2/4 Explained

By Jade Bultitude
Published on

Time Signature 2/4 is one of the most popular meters in western music. Each measure (or bar) has 2 quarter notes beats in it. This time signature is counted as 1…2….1….2…1….2 and a classic march gives you the feel for what it sounds like.

We’re going to dive straight into 2/4 time, but you can find more info on what a time signature in ourcomplete guide to meters.

What is a 2/4 time signature?

The time signature or meter 2/4 is show in the music as a 2 above a 4.

This comes before the music starts but after the clef and key signature. The ‘2’ stands for 2 beats per measure and the ‘4’ tells us that each beat is a quarter note. This means that the notes in each measure will add to two quarter notes.

See if you can spot the two quarter note beats in this line of music.

Now here it is with the beats labelled.

How to count in 2/4

2/4, like all meters, has a distinctive feel to it. We count 2/4 as 1..2…1…2….1…2 and you can see this on the music below.

The two quarter-note beats are counted regardless of how those beats are divided up.

Here is an extract from ‘Musette in D Major’ by J.S. Bach. It contains more complex rhythms with a variety of note lengths, however this piece would still be counted with two quarter-note beat. Can you spot where each beat falls?

Now here it is with the beats added.

2/4 is a Simple, Duple Time Signature

There are three broad types of time signature: simple, compound and irregular. Simple time signatures have beats that divide into two. Compound time signatures have beats that divide into three and irregular time signatures have a mixture of beats.

In 2/4 each beat is a quarter note and therefore can be divided into TWO eighth notes. This makes 2/4 a Simple Time Signature. It is a Duple time signature because there are TWO quarter-note beats in each measure. To learn more about the differences in type of time signature check out our ultimate guide to time signatures.

The notes below show how each quarter note beat in 2/4 time can be divided into two eight notes.

Songs with a 2/4 Time Signature

What shall we do with the drunken sailor

This traditional sea shanty is was sung on ships from as long ago as the 1830s. It remains popular today, with may version being played for various ensembles. 

Mozart – Turkish March

This is the 3rd and final movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. It is nicknamed the ‘Turkish march’ as it imitates Turkish military music. This type of music was popular in Vienna at the time as Austria had a long-standing relationship with the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. 

Joy to the world

This famous Christmas carol was written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, an English minister. The lyrics offer an interpretation of Psalm 98 which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Flight Of The Bumblebee – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

This piece is originally an orchestral interlude to the opera ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’. The piece has become famous due to its challenging fast-paced runs used to imitate the flying patterns of a bumblebee. Check of 7 of the fastest versions here.

What’s the difference between 2/4 and 4/4?

4/4 time has four quarter-note beats per measure and is counted as 1..2..3..4..1..2…3…4. There is an emphasis on the first and third beats in each measure so we can call these strong beats.

2/4 has quarter note beats, the same as 4/4, but it only has two of them per measure. There is an emphasis on the first beat in each bar and it is counted as 1..2…1..2. This means it can be difficult to distinguish between the 1st and 3rd accented beats in 4/4, or the 1st beats of measures in 2/4. 

We could even convert a piece in 2/4 into 4/4 and it would seemingly be no different.

However, in 4/4 the 3rd beat would not be quite as strong as the 1st beats in a 2/4 time signature. This gives the piece a different feel:

  • In 2/4 each strong beat is the 1st beat of each measure. The have the same strength.
  • In 4/4 the emphasis is on the 1st and 3rd beats but the 3rd beat is not as strong as the 1st beat of each bar.
  • This means that a piece in 4/4 rewritten in 2/4 would be played differently.

Songs that sound like they are in 2/4 but are NOT!

Hey Ya! Outkast

This piece is actually in 4/4 but it does contain the odd bar of 2/4. Listen for the emphasis on the 1st beat of each measure of 4/4. 

Samson – Regina Spektor

Most arrangements of this song stay in 4/4 with the odd bar of 6/4. This works better with the length of the phrases in the melody. The chords in the left hand do sometimes follow a 1..2..1…2 pattern underneath, which might be why people have mistakenly thought it is played in 2/4.

What next…?

If you want to learn more about time signatures, check out our complete guide to meters.

What to learn more about music theory, take a look at our guide to the circle of fifths here.

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AUTHOR
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations. She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.