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Is there any sound numerical correlation between tempo, time signature and note lengths(duration in time)?

For example:

With some certain time signature like 6/8 or 4/4 and with a 120 bpm tempo what is the length of whole note, half note, crotchet etc ?

marked as duplicate by Dave, Dom, Shevliaskovic, Pat Muchmore, Chris Oct 12 '14 at 22:35

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Each of these can be thought of as a conversion factor. Typically, you're converting everything to or from beats (which are the basic unit of time in music). If you recall "dimensional analysis" from high-school physics, this is a great place to use it!

  • Time signature numerator = beats/bar
  • Time signature denominator = beats/whole-note (i.e. what division of whole note is a beat)
  • Tempo = beats/minute

However, there is the additional caveat that the "beats" in the tempo may not be the same as the "beats" in the time signature. In this case, you have to compare the note in the tempo marking with the time signature denominator. This typically happens in compound time, as explained by Dom and Bob Broadley.

So if you were looking for the actual time duration of a note, you'd use the time signature's denominator to determine how many beats (or what fraction of a beat) are allotted to that note. Then you'd use the tempo to determine the length of time in a beat (possibly accounting for different definitions of beat if needed).

Example

I was asked to give an example, presumably of finding the duration of a note. It should go without saying that this isn't something that any musician would ever need or want to think about while playing (especially since the actual tempo will often be somewhat variable during performance), but that doesn't mean there might not be a reason for someone to do it (such as when programming a computer).

For this example, let's say the time signature is 6/8, the tempo is a dotted quarter at 108 bpm, and you want to know how long a quarter note (or two tied eighth notes) lasts. From the tempo, we know there are (108 dotted-quarters / minute). We also know that our note's duration is 2/3rds the duration of the tempo unit (our quarter note lasts two eighths, while the tempo unit is three eighths). This gives us the formula below. Note that because each of the ratios below is exactly equal to one by definition, I can "flip" them as needed, in order to ensure that the units cancel out properly.

(60 seconds / 1 minute) * (1 minute / 108 dotted-quarters) * (2 dotted-quarter / 3 quarters)

= (60 * 2) seconds / (108 * 3) quarters

= (120/324) seconds / quarter note

= 0.370 seconds / quarter note

You'll also notice that (aside from affecting the unit the tempo is measured in) the time signature never enters into this equation. That's because the time signature is used for finding the length of a bar (or measure), which has no direct bearing on the duration of the note. So what if you wanted to find the length of a bar? The calculation is very similar, but note where the 6 (from the time signature) comes into play.

(60 seconds / 1 minute) * (1 minute / 108 dotted-quarters) * (1 dotted-quarter / 3 eighths) * (6 eighths / bar)

= (60 * 6) seconds / (108 * 3) bars

= (360/324) seconds / bar

= 1.111... seconds / bar

Addendum for MIDI Files

If you're working with MIDI files and sequencers, you may also come across a quantity called "ticks" or "Pulses Per Quarter Note" (PPQN) which defines the temporal granularity of the events in that file. This doesn't directly reference either beats or real-time units, so there's a bit of conversion necessary. For example, assuming the tempo unit matches the time signature denominator:

ticks per second = (ticks/quarter-note) * (quarter-note/beat) * (beats/minute) * (minute/second) = PPQN * (4/denominator) * (tempo/60)

  • If no explicit tempo mark is given, you can map the 1/4 note to the tempo number in BPM. For example at 60 BPM the 1/4 will always take 1 s, no matter if you have 2/4, 4/4, 6/8 or whatever. If an explicit tempo mark is given, the above answer applies. For example with "<1/8> = 60 BPM" you will have 60 of the 1/8 notes per minute. (Please correct me if I got it wrong.) – Stefan Mar 18 '18 at 7:13
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Another question and answer give answers for any beat type and tempo, but for the examples above, it depends upon which note length beat is 120 bpm.

For instance, a crotchet bpm of 120 (as would probably be used in 4/4), will always give a crotchet length of 0.5 seconds, whole-note length of 2 seconds, half-note length of 1 second, and so on.

If, on the other hand, the quaver beat is 120 bpm (which may be used in a slow 6/8, for instance), the quaver length is now 0.5 seconds, the crotchet is 1 second, the dotted-crotchet is 1.5 seconds, and so on.

Of course, in 6/8 you would be very likely to have the tempo marking given as how many dotted-crotchet beats there are per minute. If this were 120, the dotted crotchet is 0.5 seconds, the crotchet is two-thirds of this (approx. 0.33 seconds) and a quaver is a third of this (just 1/6 of a second).

  • Also keep in mind that if your tempo comes from a midi file, that note length will always be a quarter note regardless of what the sheet music notates it as. Technically in microseconds per quarternote which translates to quarter notes per minute – Stephen Hazel Oct 7 '14 at 19:43
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It depends. The BPM is telling you the tempo based on a reference. If it is 4/4 then it is most likely this:

enter image description here

This pretty much means that there are 120 quarter notes a minute so each quater note would be a half second long. If you wanted to know how many half notes there are in a minute it is just simple math. Since there is two quarter notes in every half note then you just cut the BPM in half to get how many half notes there are a minute. In this case it would be 60 and each half note would be a second long.

Similarly, if you wanted to know how many whole notes there are in a minute it is just simple math. Since there is four quarter notes in every whole note then you just divide the BPM by 4 to get how many whole notes there are a minute. In this case it would be 30 and each whole note would be two seconds long.

In 6/8 you would most likely see this:

enter image description here

This is slightly different since a dotted quarter note (a quarter note and an eighth note) get the beat. In this case there would be 80 quarter notes a minute.

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