Time Signatures

In the ABRSM grade 5 you will usually be given a multiple choice question on time signatures.

First, simply add up the notes you can see, as this can often eliminate one or more of the answer choices.

If there is still more than one possible answer, look at the grouping to work out how many beats in the bar there are. Remember:

  • A new beamed group = a new beat
  • Triplets mean “three notes in the time of two” and duplets are the opposite.
  • Long notes normally fall directly on the beat
  • Notes are not grouped across beats 2-3 in quadruple time

Grouped notes with lots of dots and beams can look difficult at first, but there is an easy way to understand them.

A dot on one side is balanced by a beam on the other, so if you add or remove the same number of dots and beams on each side, you’re left with notes that take up the same overall time value.

dots and beams

Here is an example question. What time signature is this bar?

what time signature is this bar?
  • Three triplet quavers (8th notes) = 2 quavers.
  • The last two notes are also worth 2 quavers (8th notes).
  • There are 7 quavers in total.
  • The time signature must be 7/8.


The multiple choice question on grouping requires you to look at the way notes are grouped, the type of note values used, and the way notes are tied. You’ll be asked to look at three fairly similar bars and choose the one which has been notated correctly.

  • The correct note values, ties and beaming are always the ones which make the beats in the bar very clear.
  • The wrong versions will have mistakes in the type of note values used, the beaming or the ties.

Start by finding the differences between the three bars. Usually there will be two things which vary in each bar. Can you spot the differences here?

grouping question grade 5 music theory

The first difference is the beaming between A and G

The second difference is the sort of note used for the D at the end.

When you have found the differences, work out which version shows the beat more clearly. To know what length the beat is supposed to be, you now need to look at the time signature. The time signature 9/4 here means “3 dotted minim (half note) beats per bar”.

Now work out which notes belong to the first beat, by adding the notes together until you reach the value of one beat.

We can see that the second dotted minim beat will start on the semiquaver (16th note) A. Do the same for the other beats in the bar.

find the beats

Now we can see which version fits the beats most clearly.

The semiquaver (16th note) group needs to be beamed together, and the final note needs a tie so that the 3rd beat of the bar is visible, so the answer is (c).


You will be asked whether the rests in melody are correct or not.

First, make sure the bar adds up correctly, according to the time signature. If the bar adds up ok, the notation still might be incorrect if the wrong value of rest has been used, or the rests are in the wrong order.

rests question

The time signature is 6/8, which means two dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) beats per bar, or a total of 6 quavers (8th notes).

Adding up everything in bar 1, the total only comes to 5½ quavers instead of 6, so this rest must be the wrong value.

Adding up everything in bar 2, we can see there are 6 quavers in the bar, which is the correct number. But is the rest the correct value? This rest is worth less than a whole beat. Half of it belongs in beat 1, and the other half belongs in beat 2. We would need to use two quaver (8th) rests, so that the second beat of the bar is easy to see, so this rest is incorrect.

In bar 3, the bar again does add up correctly, but the rests in beat 1 here have been written from large to small, instead of in order from small to large, so this is also incorrect.

Finally, in bar 4, the rest is correct, because we use the semibreve (whole) rest for a full bar’s rest.

rests answer

Rhythm Rewriting

The rhythm rewriting question in the grade 5 exam will ask you to choose the answer which has been correctly converted, usually from simple to compound time, or the other way around. Rhythm re-writing was introduced at grade 4. Here is a quick review:

Simple to Compound

We will rewrite this rhythm in compound time, keeping the rhythm the same.

rewriting rhythm question

Each beat will become a dotted beat. In the melody we are looking at, the beat is a crotchet (quarter note), so we change these into dotted crotchets. This means the time signature will become 9/8 (three dotted crotchets per bar).

Beats which are divided into two will need a duplet symbol added (because in compound time the beat normally divides into three smaller notes).

Beats which are divided into three with a triplet sign are rewritten as normal notes (without a triplet symbol). This is because the beat already divides into three in compound time.

rewriting rhythm answer

Compound to Simple

We will rewrite this rhythm in simple time.

rewriting rhythm question

Each beat will become undotted. 12/8 has four dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) beats per bar. Change the dotted beats to undotted notes: four undotted crotchet (quarter) note beats = 4/4.

Duplets become “normal” (nothing added).

Beats which are divided into three become triplets (“3” added).

rewriting answer