I know people ask about time signatures often, and I've read some of the posts, and haven't seen an answer to what confuses me.

I know that : 4/4 means 4 quarter notes. 3/4 means 4 quarter notes.

So here's what confused me: in the second example, what are they a quarter of? They're not a quarter of the measure, they're a 3rd of the measure.

You can't fill something up with 3 quarters, that would leave part of it empty. But you can fill it up with 3 quarters of something else, but I have a hard time grasping what it's quarters of.

Is it "3 elements of what would be quarter notes if it was in 4/4"? So is 4/4 like the benchmark and are the other time signatures depicted relative to that?


  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's just too trivial Dec 12, 2017 at 13:40
  • 2
    This is not a bad question at all!
    – Matt L.
    Dec 12, 2017 at 14:17
  • Please, please explain why you need to regard all this in the way that's becoming apparent in comments.
    – Tim
    Dec 13, 2017 at 9:00

3 Answers 3


The terminology has tripped you - and loads of others, up! The longest note is/was a breve, which represented a whole bar. Somehow, it turned out it was too long, so common time, 4/4, was born, using a semibreve as the note to fill the bar completely.

So, four one beat notes are equivalent to that semibreve, and are often called crotchets. Every time the time signature shows 4/4, it will mean there are 4 crotchets per bar. These, then can be called quarter notes. When the time sig. is 3/4, aka three-quarter time, there will only be 3 one beat/crotchet notes in each bar. Each bar is still considered full - as it's known as three-quarter time - each bar is only three quarters as long as the 'standard' bar (4/4), also called common time.

Put a slightly different way - the bottom number tells what sort of notes, the top number tells how many per bar - very similar to a fraction in maths. Hope this clears up what is a potentially confusing part of written music.

  • 1
    The naming system of “quarters”, “half”, etc appear to be a curiously North American enterprise. International friends have over the years pointed out how silly the naming system is. Indeed it gets much worse when rhythms become more difficult (e.g. triplet-quarters / quintuplet-eighths; why not “sixth” or “tenth notes”?) In this respect, both naming systems could use some help, though admittedly the European system is a bit clearer for general use / knowledge. Dec 12, 2017 at 13:23
  • 2
    Deprecating "quarter" , "eighth", etc. on such basis is hyperpedantic IMHO. It's certainly much easier to write, say, and identify written note forms using the 1/(2^n) system than that curiously British collection of random names. Further, the beat length of a written eighth note depends on other factors (triplets, etc.) as jjmusicnotes points out. Just count the flags and you can calculate the note-name; something much more difficult if you insist on calling it a hemisemidemimicronanoattoquaver. Dec 12, 2017 at 13:45
  • Thanks for your usual style of comment. Didn't deprecate (although something similar did cross my mind). In reality, this question would never have been posed if the 'proper' names were known and used. Tuplets weren't coming into the equation, and are - or should be - clearly noted - or notated. There's a slight hint at racism in the comment, which might just get it deleted...! Why not try your hand at more answering and less commenting? Seriously.
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2017 at 16:29
  • I am going to accept this answer. It mentions that 4/4 has the standard bar (and is called common time), which does seem to be the case and is vital to understanding this properly. In 4/4, a quarter note would be 60 / bpm, and regardless of the time signature, this is used as the benchmark.
    – SwammiM
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:43
  • Thanks, but do not get bpm into the equation, as it has little to do with the time signature - believe me!
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2017 at 19:09

what are they a quarter of?

A whole note. It's all very self-referential.

There exists a type of note called a whole note. It takes up some amount of time, to be determined by the time signature and tempo. Whatever a whole note ends up being, a half note is half of it, a quarter note is a quarter of it (and half of a half note), etc.

4/4 is a time signature where there are four beats per measure, and each beat is represented by a quarter note. The measure can be filled with a single whole note, two half notes, four quarters, or any combination that adds up correctly.

3/4 is a time signature where there are three beats per measure, and each beat is represented by a quarter note. A whole note is too large to fit in a 3/4 measure.

  • 1
    The really daft thing is - that 'whole note' is called a semibreve (in backward England...) which in itself is actually half of something - a breve! So, technically, it could make more sense - to beginners - to call a 'crotchet' an eighth note...
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2017 at 16:35
  • And really much dafter - 'breve' translates as 'short'...
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2017 at 17:30
  • 2
    Since this is a question caused by confusing terminology, I was very careful to keep my terminology as clear as possible. The British names are irrelevant here and just make things worse.
    – MattPutnam
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:14
  • Understood. Just pointing out how ludicrous the whole thing can appear. The English names are very clear, and equivocal, however.
    – Tim
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:17
  • In regards to what that "some amount of time" mentioned is : After doing some experimentation in a DAW, it turns out that at 60 bpm, a quarter note is always 1 second regardless of time signature, and a whole note is 4 seconds. So it looks like a whole note is always equal to 240 / bpm, regardless of time signature. And a quarter note is always 60 / bpm, and an eight is 30 / bpm. So in 3/4, that means 3 units of (60 / bpm), and in 6/8, that means 6 units of (30 / bpm).
    – SwammiM
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:40

The problem in this case appears to be nomenclature more than anything else. In other parts of the world a ‘quarter note’ is called a crochet.

A half note is called a minim. A whole note is called a semi-breve And a note with double the value of a semi breve is called a breve.

In my country we learn both and it might benefit you to do so as well.

A quarter note is a quarter of a semi-breve which is itself half of a much longer archaic note value.

I teach my students to say ‘4 crochet beets per bar’. Or ‘4 quarter note beats bee bar’.

I eve distinguish between crochets and crotches beats since a bar might just have a dotted minim (half note) or something else with the suivaient value.

  • Thanks for your reply. Giving it another name could help with seeing it differently, but I'm still confused. In 3/4, does a mimim last 2 crochets as well, and a semi-breve 4 crochets? So that's "one bar and one crochet"?
    – SwammiM
    Dec 12, 2017 at 12:35
  • 1
    A quarter note is just a bad name. It is a quarter of something but not the measure itself. It is a quarter of a note four times as long as it is. Which is self evident but not all that useful when you think about it. Dec 12, 2017 at 12:38

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