Is a Whole note always 4 beats? Why is a dotted quarter 1.5 beats in common time but 1 beat in 6/8 time? how many beats is a quarter note in 6/8 time? I'm really confused.

  • Note values never change, period. Rest values are mostly constant too; however, a whole rest is always as long as a whole bar, no matter what the signature is. (As usual, ease of notation won out over total consistency.) – Kilian Foth Dec 28 '17 at 10:43
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    I hope I don’t need to write a full answer here but I’m skimming and seeing some wrong information. Let me state: a note’s length changes relative to the perceived unit pulse. A quarter note in 4/4 is perceived as being 1 beat but in 2/2 would be felt relatively speaking like an 8th note. The same relationship is found for all note values. When you change the unit pulse, either the tempo or the duration must change proportionally. – jjmusicnotes Dec 28 '17 at 13:31

The US names whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc have some obvious advantages over the UK names semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, etc. However, they introduce a different confusion since the whole note is only the whole bar in 4/4 or 2/2. In 3/4 a whole note is more than a bar and hence not used. In 5/4, it does not fill a bar.

6/8, and other time signatures with lower number 8, would suggest that the beat is an eighth note or quaver. However, these are used when it is wished to be able to divide a beat into 3 rather than 2. There will be 6 8th notes (or others of the same total duration) per bar they will not each be considered a beat. A beat will be 3 of these hence a dotted quarter note. These time signatures are called "compound time".

The system is not entirely logical, you just need to remember this quirk.

This Wikipedia article is quite good.

  • If a beat is a Dotted-crotchet, a quaver is 1/3 of the beat not 1/2 as in other time signatures? – n00B Dec 28 '17 at 14:18
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    Yes. That is the purpose, to allow the beat to be divided into three. This is done occasionally in other time signatures using triplets but when it is the norm then these compound time signatures are convenient. – badjohn Dec 28 '17 at 14:45

To further confuse - a 'whole note' is called a semibreve which in itself is half of a breve - a very old note, which ironically translates as 'short'!! That semibreve has become known as a whole note and takes up the full bar (measure) in the common 4/4 time signature.

Its actual played length or duration fills any bar of 4/4, no matter what the tempo (bpm) of the piece is. That tempo is usually the only deciding factor as to how long a beat is.

6/8 time comprises two beats, but each one is actually written as a dotted crotchet, so the whole bar is 3 crotchets long - or put another way, 6 quavers (eighth notes), and counts in two ways - a slow 1-- 2-- or a quicker 123456. This is where it all seems to lose credibility, as we're now in compound duple time. Compound = not standard/straightforward ! But - we're not in 4/4, or even 3/4, so the 'rule' that applied there doesn't have to here.

In 6/8 (and 9/8 and 12/8) one 'beat' is recognised by a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note), as when writing the music out, it conveys more sense as to the feel of the piece. So, in one way, a 'beat' = a crotchet doesn't transfer happily to this compound time, as now a 'beat' = a dotted crotchet.

In this answer, I've referred to a 'beat' as the overriding pulse of a piece - the foot tapping part.

Yes, most seem to find this concept confusing, but it would appear that no better way of portraying it has revealed itself - yet !


I've had guitar students who struggle with the issue, so I sympathise with this question. Let me suggest a few thoughts that might help.

I would start with one note and get it absolutely clear in my mind. For instance consider the quarter note. This note is also called the crotchet, and it is one beat long. So it has three different labels. We need to take the time to understand how they are related.

"Quarter note" describes the note proportionally. The most common time signature is 4/4 time (four beats in each bar). In that music a whole note is a note that lasts for a whole bar. By correspondence a half note is two beats, a quarter note is one beat, and so on.

But this does not mean that the quarter note is variable. It is not proportional in all time signatures. What has happened is that 4/4 time, being the most common time signature, has been the foundation for defining the length of a quarter note, and that same label and length flows through to other time signatures.

A good way to get a feel for this is to set up a simple rhythm: listen to a metronome, follow the ticking of a clock, tap your foot. Then start counting 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-1-2-3. What you are doing is toggling between 4/4 time and 3/4 time. The length of the note hasn't changed. It's just that in 4/4 time there are four quarter notes, while in 3/4 time there are three quarter notes.

So we have three ways of describing the note. We can call it a quarter note, based on the proportion of a bar that it fills in the default 4/4 time. We can call it a crotchet, based on its historical origin. (I think it is French and has to do with the appearance of the symbol for this note.) Or we can name it a one beat note, based on its length.

In music lessons my habit and my suggestion to my students is that they call it a one beat note until they are confident with note lengths. This has the huge advantage of consistency and clarity. We see this in the OP:

Why is a dotted quarter 1.5 beats in common time but 1 beat in 6/8 time?

In fact this is not the case. The quarter note has the same length in both settings. In 6/8 time the 8 tells us that the bars have an eighth note or half beat rhythm, while the 6 tells us that there are 6 of those half beat notes in each bar. If there are two even notes played in a bar, then those notes will each be three half beats long. That equates to 1 and a half beats, hence the dotted quarter note. (If this is complicated, that illustrates the importance of starting simple and building one's understanding.)

  • The crotchet is indeed from the French 'crotchet', meaning 'hook'. However, personally, I think a quaver more resembles a hook... – Tim Dec 28 '17 at 12:13
  • Agreed. But then I guess they already named the quaver because it looks like, well, something quavery. – Peter Kirkpatrick Dec 28 '17 at 13:56
  • A dotted quarter is only one beat in 6/8 because 6/8 is a compound duple, worth two beats. If it was 1.5 in 6/8 it will be 3 beats total which is just simple triple time. – n00B Dec 28 '17 at 14:02
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    @n00B That reply is understandable but wrong. You're comparing 6/8 time and 3/4 time. It would be true to say that 6/8 time only has two stresses, but those stresses are 1 and a half beats long as I explained. Consider 6 half beat units. (Tap them out if necessary.) In 3/4 time the stress is on 1, 3 and 5; in 6/8 time the stress is on 1 and 4. If you toggle between the rhythms as per the suggested exercise in my answer, you would count them like this: ONE-two-THREE-four-FIVE-six-ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six. Different rhythms but the same overall length. – Peter Kirkpatrick Dec 29 '17 at 14:36

The length of a note is always the same. Neither does it change with time signature, nor with the tempo.

Working in the 4/4 time signature I will explain how this works:

This is a whole note. A whole note is always 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes, 8 eighth notes and etc.

enter image description here

These are two half notes. They together form a whole note.

enter image description here

There are 4 quarter notes. They together form a whole note. In pairs they form two half notes.

enter image description here

This can go on and on. This is how the note duration tree looks:

enter image description here

Here is how dotted notes are formed. I guess you can get the pattern:

enter image description here

If we take the 6/8 time signature (6 notes which are eighth) then a whole note will be a quarter note more than the time signature allow (or two eighth more):

enter image description here

We can count 6/8 (8-2 eighth notes) as 3/4 and this way it's easier to understand that 3/4 is 4-1 quarter notes. Notice that you can always divide the notes using the tree mentioned earlier.

So to fill a 6/8 (3/4) bar we need something that is a quarter less. We can place a half note and a quarter note:

enter image description here

We can also use a different pattern and place a dotted half note which is a half note + a quarter note or we can place two dotted quarter notes:

enter image description here

Each quarter note is a quarter note + an eighth note so we get this:

enter image description here

And each quarter note as we know is formed of two eighth notes so we get this:

enter image description here

Now if we count the amount of eighth notes we get 6. so 6/8 is 6 notes which are eighth.

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    Why the downvotes? This is absolutely correct information. – SovereignSun Dec 29 '17 at 4:37
  • Maybe because the numbers should represent fractions, and they don't look that way. – Tim Dec 29 '17 at 10:04
  • Maybe also because you have given facts but not clarity. For example, your first sentence is ambiguous and (as it currently stands) is wrong. "The length of a note is always the same." But notes can be of any length. I presume you mean that a specific note symbol will always have a consistent length. But that's not what you say. – Peter Kirkpatrick Jan 1 '18 at 8:49

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