From wiki: "Time signature is a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats (pulses) are to be contained in each bar and which note value is to be given one beat. Clear!!

So, this (within a Piano Roll from my DAW, FL Studio 12) is a simple 4/4:

enter image description here

4 pulses with length (note value) of 1/4 (quarter note) of a whole note, within the bar. n.b. in the screenshot, snap is step (1/4 beat) and there are 4 beats (which make 1 bar).

Now... what about this:

enter image description here

It's still 4 pulses within 1 bar, but note values now are not exactly a quarter note long.

How would you call it? It's still 4/4? The "rhythim" is the same... (start at the same time, even if end before).

  • 1
    The notes appear shorter, so rests must go into the spaces. Maybe just not shown?
    – Tim
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:20
  • What do you mean with "rests"? I set them "shorter" especially...
    – markzzz
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:23
  • I obviously don't know much about this stuff - but - if the duration of notes is shorter, and there are gaps, what else could be in the gaps?
    – Tim
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:25
  • 7
    Piano rolls, while convenient for MIDI programming and editing, aren't a very good way to understand the conventions of written music.
    – Linuxios
    Sep 7, 2016 at 15:19
  • @Tim actually, you're right on the money. As an FL Studio user I can tell you that when it is filled in with color it is sound, so it's as a note in written notation. In absence of this is a silence, which we'd notate as a rest in written notation.
    – psosuna
    Nov 17, 2017 at 23:11

4 Answers 4


Time signature defines how time is measured musically, not (directly) how time is filled with notes.

More spefically, time signature defines:

  1. The note length that it is used as time unit or "beat" (e.g. 4 = quarter notes or crotchet)
  2. The duration of a bar (or measure) in terms of the specified beat (e.g. 4 = four beats)

Once you have defined the duration of the bar, you can fill it in any way you like, either with notes or with silence (rests, in classical musical notation), as in both your examples. How you fill the bar doesn't change the time signature itself.

  • So what's the Time Signature of this? oi68.tinypic.com/21cwfht.jpg Still 3/4? (even if the note value is 1/3 instead of 1/4)?
    – markzzz
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:45
  • @markzzz it's 4/4 with half note triplets.
    – Dom
    Sep 7, 2016 at 14:52
  • I don't understand why "beat" is always considered 1/4 as "unit time". I mean, 3/4 is 3 times 1/4. 9/4 is 9 times 1/4. Why 1/4 and not (for example) 1/3? 9/4 means "9 beats" per bar. At 60BPM, in one minute, it plays 6 bars and 6 beats. If I had 9/3, it should play the same "9 beats" per bar. (so the same as above, 6 bars and 6 beats). Why the initial "bar" is 4 beats and not 3 beats? Not sure if you understand me correctly :)
    – markzzz
    Sep 7, 2016 at 15:33
  • @markzzz the bottom number of a time signature tells you what gets the beat in simple meters. You can clearly see 4 beats per measure in your example regardless of what you put into it. I think you need to take a step back before you apply time signatures to DAWs as you don't seem to get the basics of what you are doing and how it applies to musical concepts.
    – Dom
    Sep 7, 2016 at 15:39
  • 3
    @markzzz - you really need to start at the basics, and work through. You have some ideas, but they don't seem to be joined together. Have a look at simple theory, rather than making up your own, and it will begin to make a lot more sense.
    – Tim
    Sep 7, 2016 at 21:40

It's still 4/4! Imagine counting 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 steadily. That's your beat, or pulse. It's constant in the majority of pieces. Think of music to dance to - if the rhythm/beat/pulse kept changing, you'd fall over.

So, in the 1st example, the 4 notes are each one beat long. As soon as one stops, the next starts. 2nd example, each starts as before, but is not as long . However, the next note starts at exactly the same time as in example 1.

I mentioned rests in a comment. Because each note starts on the beat, but is shorter than a beat, the space must be taken by what's called a rest. A silence if you like, before it's time for the next note to play.

The whole 4 bars take the same time for each example. You could put two equal long notes, of 2 beats each, to take the same time. Still 4/4. You could play one note for half a beat, and then wait till the end of the bar with silence. Still 4/4.


What is a beat?

A beat is the stimuli you feel that gives music a time compass. Oftentimes, it is referred to as "the thing that makes you tap your foot".

What is a pulse?

A pulse is, essentially, a beat. However, for a pulse to be a pulse, it needs to be a series of beats that are perceived to be in time with each other, spaced apart in a similarly constructed amount of time.

What is a rhythm?

The word "rhythm" actually has a few different meanings depending on the context, but in the context of written music (and music in a DAW Piano Roll), it is the combination of sound and silence and the placement in time in which they occur.

What is a time signature?

A time signature is a convention for notating musical time, as a representation of how many beats in a unit of measurement known as a measure, over the note value that is the representation of a single beat. This means:

1 = 1 beat in a measure
4 = a quarter note is one beat

2 = 2 beats in a measure
4 = a quarter note is one beat

3 = 3 beats in a measure
4 = a quarter note is one beat

4 = 4 beats in a measure
4 = a quarter note is one beat

It is also possible to have combinations such as:

4 = 4 beats in a measure
2 = a half note is one beat

...or any such combination if you so desire it. The premise does not change:

X = X beats in a measure
X = a subdivision of 1/X is one beat

Putting it together

A time signature is measuring the length of a measure and how it's being calculated, not the length of a note nor the speed of the pulse. So, your example #1 is a measure of 4/4 (I know this because there are 4 major subdivisions between measure 1 and 2). There are 4 notes, all of which are exactly one quarter note in length. Therefore, this is one measure with 4 beats, and they are neatly outlined in the rhythm: 1/4-1/4-1/4-1/4. The total value is 4/4, so this is a complete measure.

Your example #2 is a measure of 4/4 (I know this because the 4 major subdivisions between measure 1 and 2 are still there). There are 4 notes, but not all of them are one quarter note in length. As a matter of fact, none of them are. This does not mean the measure is not a 4/4 measure. It means that both examples are examples of different rhythms.

How is this a different rhythm if the sound has the same pulse?

Measures have to be validated by the amount of sound and silence combined. That means that the values given should add up to the number given in the time signature. This includes note values for sound and rest values for silence.

As I explained above, example #1 has a simple rhythm of 1/4-1/4-1/4-1/4. You add these up and you get 4/4. Simple.

Example #2 is deliberately chaotic, so this will take some explanation.

  • The first note seems to have a value of approximately 7/32. There is no "7/32" note in written notation, so normally we "tie" note values together to equate the odd value. We'd require something like an eighth note(or, 4/32)+a sixteenth note(or, 2/32)+a thirty-second note(1/32), all tied together. There is a silence that is 1/32 in value before the next sound.

  • The second note seems to have a value of approximately 5/32. Again, there is no "5/32" note in written notation, so it'd be written out as possibly an eighth note + a thirty-second note, tied together. There is a silence of 3/32 in value. There is no 3/32 note or rest, so it'd be one thirty-second rest, and a sixteenth rest. You don't tie rests, they're just silence.

  • The third note is squarely one eighth note in value. The following rest is also one eighth in value.

  • The fourth note is approximately three sixteenths in value. Normally you'd try to use the largest possible value to fit in, so it'd be one eighth and one sixteenth, tied together. The remaining silence is one sixteenth, so now there's a one sixteenth rest.

Despite the fact that the two rhythms are, in fact, very different, the fact that all of the sounds align with the pulse makes them sound very similar. Or, rather, it's because in both examples the sounds all start at the same times that you can feel the pulse the same way.


Your definition of what is a pulse is wrong. Think of a metronome with a steady count or a musician tapping their foot. The pulse or beat, as that is the proper term for this, is that steady idea. It may change slightly over the course of a song, but it won't switch every beat ever. Since it is a steady, countable time event it is very useful to build music using it.

In your examples, you have a rhythm in a time signature of 4/4 nothing more nothing less. The pulse is not the notes themselves, but the thick black lines that each note start at. The first one is just straight quarter notes which is 100% in line with the beat and its full duration. The second one you still hit on each beat, but the actual duration of the note is not as long as the beat which does not affect the beat. You can even just have one note last the full 4 beat count which would be a whole note in 4/4.

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