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I'm learning basic music theory. I see that 1 beat = 1 quarter note, but I'm wondering if this rule is strict or can it be modified.

Can 1 beat = 1 eighth note instead of 1 quarter note?

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  • See music.stackexchange.com/a/115907/78419. Also, I'd add to the existing answers that no matter what the time signature says, one can choose to feel the pulse as other values instead. So for instance, even in 4/4, if you're practicing at a slow tempo, you can "pretend" to be in 8/8; or, at a fast tempo, it might sound better if you pretend it's 2/2. Commented Feb 7 at 18:15
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    Does this answer your question? What is the length of the beat? Commented Feb 8 at 21:29

7 Answers 7

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Simple answer - yes, just about any note value can be the 'beat'.

Complicated continued answer - and the time signature doesn't always tell us directly what the beat is!

You'll get told: 'Top number says how many, bottom number says what of'. Far too simplistic. That's fine for 4/4 - four beats, each a quarter note. Or 2/2 - two beats, each a half note. But it doesn't work for the (very common) 6/8, which ISN'T six beats each an 8th, it's two beats, each a dotted quarter. And 3/4 (or 3/8) can be three quarter-note beats or 'one-in-the-bar'. And just to confuse you further, 3/8 has traditionally been used for both very brisk and quite slow music - it isn't by any means always 'faster than 3/4'.

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Yes. Any note type can represent one beat. This is indicated by the bottom number in a time signature.

For example,

3/2 = three half-note beats per measure
3/8 = three eighth-note beats per measure
3/16 = three sixteenth-note beats per measure
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    Sometimes, in triple and especially in compound meters, the beat is the dotted note one level longer than the level specified by the denominator of the time signature. For example, 6/8 is frequently two dotted-quarter beats per measure, and 3/4 is occasionally one dotted-half beat per measure.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 7 at 18:01
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The standard way of thinking about it is, as others have said, that the lower number of the time signature tells you which note value corresponds with the beat. But in real life there's even more flexibility and variation.

This is typically seen at faster tempos. For example, the scherzo of Beethoven's ninth symphony is in a fast 3/4, but it's way too fast to beat three beats in each bar. Instead, we say it is "in one" and the beat is the dotted half note. In some sections, Beethoven even specifies that the measures should be grouped into metrical groups of three or four (ritmo di tre battute and ritmo di quattro battute).

Music in compound meters, typically where the numerator is 6, 9, or 12, is frequently actually in 2, 3, or 4 with the beat being subdivided in 3 (and in the case of 9 and 12 nearly always so). As an example, think of "Here we go round the mulberry bush" (a.k.a. "this is the way we [do some task]") -- it's awkward and cumbersome to beat in six; beat it in two and you'll get the skipping, dancing rhythm that it deserves.

For basic music theory, the next step after "quarter note gets the beat" should certainly be "the bottom number of the time signature specifies the beat," but do keep in mind that it's not the end of the story.

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It can be, but when you see a time signature where the top number is a multiple of 3, like 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8, it typically represents a beat divided into three instead of two - three eighth notes equals one beat.

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Yes, you can have quaver, crotchet, or minim beats, each one with or without a dot. You can have 2, 3, or 4 beats to a measure with whatever type of beat you like, and in the Modern musical era, composers even experimented with 5 and 7 time ie 5 or 7 beats to a measure.

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The beat is whatever the denominator of the time signature says it is. Quarter in n/4 times (e. g. 3/4), eighth in n/8 times (e. g. 12/8), half in n/2 times (e. g. 2/2).

So, yes. It can be the eighth.

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  • Sometimes, in triple and especially in compound meters, the beat is the dotted note one level longer than the level specified by the denominator of the time signature. For example, 6/8 is frequently two dotted-quarter beats per measure, and 3/4 is occasionally one dotted-half beat per measure.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 7 at 18:00
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    @Divizna No, too simplistic. 12/8 is vanishingly unlikely to be 12 beats to the bar!
    – Laurence
    Commented Feb 7 at 23:05
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Yes. A time signature defines how many beats are in a measure (the top number), and also the note value that is considered a beat (the bottom number). A 4/4 time signature indicates there are 4 quarter notes per measure. A 6/8 time signature indicates there are 6 eighth notes per measure. A 2/2 time signature indicates there are 2 half notes per measure. Any time signature that is something/8 has eighth notes as beats.

I'll also note that a time signature usually carries implications about the feel or pulse of a piece of music, in addition to the definitional aspect of how the beats should be counted. Any piece written in 4/4 would look the same in 8/8 or 16/16, but the latter two might have different pulse patterns than the usual emphasis on 1 and 3 in a 4-beat measure. You could write a triplet-feel piece in 2/4, but it might be a better fit for 6/8.

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  • Sometimes, in triple and especially in compound meters, the beat is the dotted note one level longer than the level specified by the denominator of the time signature. For example, 6/8 is frequently two dotted-quarter beats per measure, and 3/4 is occasionally one dotted-half beat per measure.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 7 at 18:01
  • @phoog Those are pulses, not beats, although colloquially they're sometimes referred to as the same. The 8 in 6/8 defines the eighth note as the beat, but they're usually organized in threes, yielding a dotted quarter note pulse. A 6/8 time signature does not have 2 dotted quarter note beats per measure, nothing in the time signature references 2 beats or dotted quarter notes. Commented Feb 7 at 18:06
  • "Those are pulses, not beats": is there a meaningful distinction between pulses and beats other than the circular "the beat is the unit of time specified by the bottom number of the time signature"? Have you ever been in a rehearsal where a conductor has said "I'll conduct dotted quarter pulses" instead of "I'm beating the 6/8 section in 2" or something similar?
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 7 at 18:17
  • @phoog Tempo is defined in terms of "beats per minute" - that exclusively refers to the beat unit defined by the time signature, not the stylistic pulse (which can change without modifying the time signature/beat). If you interpret a 6/8 piece as having 2 dotted quarter beats, you'll be playing it 3x too fast according to the noted BPM. Commented Feb 7 at 18:27
  • (Setting aside any quibbles with that definition of "tempo",) that still seems circular. Metronome markings for compound-meter works are rarely given in eighth notes. I might expect that only for a truly lugubrious compound pulse, like some of the somnambulant slow-movements-of-the-Bach-double or pastoral-symphonies-from-Messiah that I've had the misfortune to play. Commented Feb 7 at 21:29

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