I was writing a report in which I was trying to explain the way we notate a point of time in music such as "at Measure 1, Beat 3, Tick 240" in contrast to the regular time whose units are "hours, minutes, seconds."

I needed a terminology for such notation and thought it was 'musical time' (in contrast to 'regular time,') but quick searches showed that the term was already created by Gisèle Brelet and that it seemed to mean completely different thing.

What is the right word (or maybe words?)

  • 2
    Measure and beat are familiar, but 'tick'?
    – Tim
    Jun 7, 2018 at 8:05
  • Tick is a unit for subdivisions of a beat used mainly in MIDI. Usually a beat has 480 ticks Jun 7, 2018 at 8:35
  • In written music, there's usually no need to sub-divide further than a hemi-semi-demi quaver, which is 1/16th of one beat (generally a crotchet, or 'quarter note').1/480 seems rather extreme - unless the tempo is crotchet = 10b.p.m.! Even then...
    – Tim
    Jun 7, 2018 at 8:45
  • It is very common to divide a beat into 3. Sometimes, a beat is divided into 5 (though this is rarer). So it makes sense for the number of ticks per beat to be a multiple of 3.
    – Rosie F
    Jun 7, 2018 at 9:11
  • 1
    Is "Time" actually what you are measuring here? As you say "Regular Time" is measured in hours, minutes etc. and these have defined fixed duration (give or take a bit of relativity). Measures and beats in music are different because they define different amounts of "time" depending on the tempo of the piece.
    – JimM
    Jun 7, 2018 at 10:07

2 Answers 2


'Musical time' is plain English, and is a perfectly good term for you to use, as long as you define what you mean by it. (Perhaps mention that the term has also been used with a specialised meaning by Brelet and others.) Both 'regular time' and 'musical time' position events on a scale, divided into units and sub-units. Days, hours, minutes and seconds are similar to bars, beats, 8ths, 16ths etc. The big difference is that 'regular time' uses fixed units - a second is a second whether the music is fast or slow. 'Musical time' is adaptive. It aligns to the beat of the music. Maybe there's a steady tempo, maybe it's flexible - speeding up and slowing down. (Not, in fact, a WHOLE lot different to Brelet's meaning of 'musical time'.)


From Paulson and Cheyette:

Rhythm is the motion of music.

Meter is the measurement of that motion: e.g. 3/4, 7/8, C, etc. The Meter defines what note type gets a beat and how many constitute a group.

A measure is one complete "round" or "count" of the Meter.

The Beat is the pulse ..., as in the ticking of a clock.

Strictly speaking Meter is the division of music into events placed in time and Beat is the speed of the song, how fast those events will occur. Confusion sometimes arises because we say in C time a quarter notes gets a beat. So, we think of beat is relative duration when in fact it refers to true passing of time. It should be noted that a "beat" can occur once per measure on the one, and not on each quarter note. The conductor defines this in an orchestra. Also, sometimes these terms and their use change over time. Historical time not beat time.

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