In contrast to pitch, rhythm refers to the length and accentuation of a sequence of notes. If we focus exclusively on the durations, what would be a proper term?

Example: 1/4, 1/2, 1/4

no tempo, no time signature, no accents, just a sequence of relative durations.

Update: In the example above, 1/2 could be a rest (a minim), it's not that silence is not allowed, but the question is about the temporal microstructure of the sequence.

Update: Put it in a more precise way: I'm formalizing the combinatorics of how a bar (given a signature) can be organized in notes of durations that sum to that bar length. Say, a 3/4 defines a bar of an overall relative time of a dotted-half, what are the possible arrangements of notes (and rests) for this bar to a maximum of (say) two dotted-notes? The question then is: What am I studying in the scope of music? Rhythm, as I understand it, is too broad a term for just that.

Update: According to this manual of music theory, "rhythm" is the word for it. But accentuation is also a fundamental part of rhythm.

  • 3
    What's wrong with the word "duration" that makes it not the answer to this question? Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 11:39

3 Answers 3


Do you need anything more complicated than "duration">

"What combination of notes and rests have a total duration of 12 beats?"

  • Not sure about your answer, cause it focuses on beats. 4/4 means four beats of a quarter length (adding up to a whole), while 4/8 means four beats of a sixteenth length (adding up to a half). I assume you consider "beat level", so the former case always. How could we reformulate it such that beat is out of the equation? Could you propose alternatives?
    – nightcod3r
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:41

The term that is commonly used in music parlance to describe the duration of a measure as well as the duration of a note of a given value is "beat".

Another term that has been less commonly used in music is "mensural" - which is defined as "of or involving measure" and in music -

of or relating to music in which notes have fixed values in relation to each other Dictionary.com

Any measure of duration must be quantified by a measurable unit (unit of measure). We can define the passage of a certain amount of time as "a year". We can divide a year into days, days into hours, hours into minutes, and minutes into seconds. Each is a way to describe a certain duration of "time" and we have invented a quantifiable way to measure the passage of time in terms of units of measure - each of which defines a specific time interval that we have invented ways to measure and quantify.

When referring to music, we use the term beat as a measure of time. We speak in terms of beats per minute (BBP) which is how many units of time (beats) occur in 60 seconds. If we know how many beats occur in 60 seconds, we can determine the duration of each beat (unit of musical time). In the time signature on sheet music - we can define how many "beats" are in each measure - which can tell us the duration of a measure in terms of the passage of time (using BPM) or in terms of our unit of measure for music - "beats".

Of course when we define the value of a note we will compare that with the number of beats per measure and we will define which value note (quarter note, eighth note, etc.) represents one "beat".

Beat can be associated with other musical concepts such as metre, tempo (commonly quantified in terms of "beats" per minute), and rhythm. But "beat" is the basic unit of measure for defining the time value (if you will) of a note or a rest or a measure (bar of music).

According to Wikipedia:

In music and music theory, the beat is the basic unit of time

  • Agreed, this is a strong (and detailed) argument against taking "beat" out of the equation. But still, the question remains unanswered. Given a 4/4 signature, in a single beat you can find, say, four sixteenths. This is what the question targets here: while the beat provides an underling grid, the score talks about intervals or relative time (that will eventually transform into "real time" when played). Is there a name for that? (For having 1/16 1/16 1/16 1/16 instead of 1/4?, no matters what the accent or tempo are.)
    – nightcod3r
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 21:49
  • 'The duration of a measure' I thought was the length of a bar. Thus, in 4/4, it's likely to be four beats, qualified by the top 4 telling how many, the bottom 4 telling what kind. Or did I miss the point?
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 14:26

Sounds like "meter" is probably the word you're looking for.

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