I'm playing an exercise for snare drum that has time signature 3/8 and metronome marking ♪=76.

As far as I understand, this means that every eighth note gets 1 beat and there are 3 beats in each bar. However, my teacher tells me that all three eighth notes are played in one beat of the metronome. Why is this happening?

If I understand correctly, 3/8 is a simple triple meter time signature, and every eighth note gets a separate beat in bar. The eighth note icon in the tempo designation implies that this duration should be 76 times per minute.

Please point out the error in my reasoning and explain how playing the entire bar in one beat of the metronome correlates with the tempo mark.

  • After answering I wonder whether I understand correctly. "In practice, all three eighth notes are played in one beat of the metronome. Why is this happening?" Do you mean... that someone else is playing it this way? Are you listening to recordings? Or are you playing it this way yourself and asking about what you're doing? If the question is really "Why are other people playing it so fast," I don't know that there can be a good answer with the current info. Commented Jun 5 at 17:24
  • Thanks for the edit. The only reasonable answer now is "Ask your teacher!" Either they're confused about compound meters—I was just now, and started to answer differently!—or they just want you to play it faster. Commented Jun 5 at 17:26
  • Thank you. My teacher did not give me a clear explanation, he said that this is how they usually play when the time signature is 3/8.
    – Adeline
    Commented Jun 5 at 17:41
  • 1
    "this is how they usually play when the time signature is 3/8": that depends on the tempo. Sometimes it's so fast that you have to count one beat per measure; sometimes it's so slow that you have to count three beats, and sometimes it's in the middle where you can reasonably do either, and then you can make a choice. Here, someone has told you that they think it ought to be 76 eighth notes per minute. You can take that or leave it, but it's clear that it's not telling you to play 76 measures per minute. In other words, there is no error in your reasoning.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 5 at 20:38

3 Answers 3


Time signatures get confusing. Especially, compound time signatures are confusing, in which, for example, 6/8 isn't really "six eighth-note beats," but "two dotted-quarter beats." Even more confusingly... yes, 3/8 is usually a simple triple, and is not like 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8, despite having a multiple of 3 in the top and an 8 in the bottom.

That is, yes, 3/8 is three beats, just like 3/4. (Why pick it instead of 3/4, then? Well, good question.)

Just to nail down a few other points:

  • Metronome markings don't determine a piece's actual meter or time signature. You could give it a time signature of 3/4 and give a metronome marking in eighth notes if you wanted to (though it would be a strange decision). For many pieces, the metronome marking is added by some editor, while the time signature is almost always specified by the original composer; time signatures bear more weight in terms of what's "official." (Even when the composer provides a metronome marking, like Beethoven, we often let ourselves take them with a grain of salt or of informed skepticism.) The metronome marking in no way dictates to you what "counts" as a beat.
  • We're totally allowed to set the metronome to values other than the beat: In slow tempos I often set the metronome to double the beat's BPM, or in fast tempos to half of it. Conductors do the same, regularly, conducting 2/2 in 4 or 4/4 in 2, etc.

Quite simply,

Since the tempo marking is eighth note = 76, you have 76 eighth notes passing every minute. You can set the metronome to 76, and each click is an eighth note. That is 3 clicks per bar. You could instead set the metronome at 1/3 the speed and get 1 click per bar, if you so desired.

If it were meant to be one click per bar, 76 bars per minute, the tempo marking would instead say Dotted quarter = 76 ( Eighth note = 228 would also be equivalent. ) The tempo marking tells you how fast the music is, not how to set your metronome- although a sensible tempo marking would also be a reasonable metronome setting.


If the metronome setting is quaver = 76 to the bar, then that's what it means. Your teacher is misinformed. It's not a compound time signature, but a simple 3/8, with 3 beats of 1/8 in each bar thus, 3 clicks per bar at 76bpm. That doesn't mean you have to adhere strictly to that tempo, but it's a guide.

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