In a time signature of 3/4 (three by four), what is the name given to the 3 and the 4? I know it in my own language, but can't find the answer for the English equivalent.


The entire symbol that defines the meter of a measure of music is called a time signature.

To my knowledge, English does not have specific words to refer to the top and bottom numbers, though some people may use the words 'numerator' and 'denominator', respectively, as if it were a mathematical fraction. I do not recommend this (since time signatures have nothing to do with fractions).

If I needed to give names to the top and bottom numbers I would call them 'measure length' and 'subdivision quantifier,' but usually it's not necessary to do this--or at least, we have enough other ways in English to talk about musical meter and the time signature that it's not necessary to refer to those numbers directly.

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    I meant measure. I sometime confuse the music terminology names in English. That's very odd for me to know since I am used to have specific names for that. By curiosity, if I was to translate the names I am used to use to to English, the numerator would be unit of tempo and the denominator would be unit of measure. Thanks for your reply. – nunos Jun 27 '12 at 14:33
  • Time signatures have everything to do with fractions. – General Nuisance Jan 23 '17 at 15:44
  • @GeneralNuisance I graciously invite you to support your argument instead of making an unhelpful contradiction. – NReilingh Jan 23 '17 at 15:51
  • I thought it was something that was generally accepted, but I will explain (a quick google search has brought my attention to that it's not, so it's worth my time). A fraction is made of a numerator and a denominator. Numerator, as my math text book defines it, is how many "things" are in a fraction. Denominator, it defines as "the type of things" in a fraction. A time signature describes a measure. It doesn't necessarily have to equal 1 to equal one whole measure, however, when you think of it this way, the parallels are strong. Fractions can be equivalent... – General Nuisance Jan 23 '17 at 15:59
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    Thank you. I see your point and can appreciate those parallels. I usually think of a fraction as a ratio or a quotient, rather than the two separate attributes that describe that quotient. Both are valid interpretations, of course. My argument is mainly that applying concepts of elementary math to musical meter can easily cause confusion to a learning musician. 6/8 and 3/4 are mathematically and durationally equivalent, but are musically different, and should not be played or notated in the same way (beaming, chiefly). – NReilingh Jan 23 '17 at 17:18

If you really need single words, I'd recommend 'count' and 'quantum'. If it isn't obvious which is which, then this is a bad suggestion.


There are no specific names, although that would be nice. The numerator is beats per bar. The denominator is the note duration of a beat. So 3/4 means 3 beats per bar, where quarter note is a beat.

Also, although tempo is specificed in beats per minute, it actually means QUARTER notes per minute. Even if the beat is not a quarter note per the time signature.

  • Tempo can be specified with something other than quarter notes, and in the absence of specification I would be loath to assume that "40 bpm" for a piece in 3/8 means anything other than forty 8ths per minute (for example). – user28 Jun 27 '12 at 17:02
  • That last part isn't really true--tempo markings are either going to be unambiguously marked for a quarter-note-beat meter, or will include a note value to show what kind of note gets what BPM value. For example, 6/8 time will be marked q.=60 or e=180. – NReilingh Jun 27 '12 at 17:16
  • I'm pretttttty sure that if there's no q.=99 or e=99 specified, then the sTANDARD is quarter notes per minute regardless of time signature's beat duration... and I'm absolutely positive that in a midi file, tempo values are ALWAYS quarter notes per minute regardless of time signature. – Stephen Hazel Jun 27 '12 at 17:56
  • In musical notation, a metronome marking is always specified as "M.M." (for "Maelzel's Metronome") followed by a picture of a note, an equals sign and a number. The note may or may not be a quarter note. 6/8 time is usually 2 beats per measure, not 6. Dance music is almost always either 4/4 (quarter note beat), 3/4 (quarter note beat), 2/4 (quarter note beat) or 6/8 (dotted quarter note beat). – Mark Lutton Jun 27 '12 at 21:59
  • The MIDI spec should NOT be used as a guide to real music. Seriously. A piece of music in 5/16 with an ambiguous time signature is NEVER going refer to the quarter note, since it's practically useless for figuring out how to actually play the thing. It's either going to be the entire measure, an eighth note, or a dotted eighth. – NReilingh Jun 28 '12 at 4:48

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