I just recently learned about time signatures and the beat and I need to clearly understand the relations of these things, as for now I don't seem to do it. Please correct my thoughts on the following stuff.

As for the time signature 4/4 the first 4 tells that there are 4 beats in the measure. What exaclty is the measure? Is the measure the second 4 that tells us it is 1/4 of the duration of the beat?

I did some calculations so far, e.g. the duration in s of the beat which is 60/bpm. So for 90 bpm it would be 0,67s per beat.

Would it be then correct to say that a time signature of 4/4 with 90bpm would result in a single note duration of 0,17s and that there need to be at least 4 notes that equal 4 quarters?

If the time signature was 3/4 for the same bpm would the single note duration still be 0,17s?

  • You might be interested in this related question.
    – ex nihilo
    Jan 30 '19 at 2:38
  • Another strongly related question.
    – guidot
    Jan 30 '19 at 9:57
  • 1
    This site sooooo needs an FAQ sub-page! Jan 30 '19 at 13:08
  • The endlessly repeated questions about modes of a major scale and the triads of minor key music rarely get marked as dups. So it seems folks like to repeats answers on those topics, but not others. Jan 30 '19 at 15:28
  • This question seemed to confuse measure with beat. Which isn't the point of the indicated duplicate. Jan 30 '19 at 15:34

The top number - in red for the image below - is how many beats are in a measure (or bar.)

The measure are indicated on the staff with vertical lines - measure are shown in the image below with a red bracket.

The bottom number is which note is used for the beat in this example the 4 means 1/4 (quarter) note. Notice that each quarter note is numbered 1, 2, 3... to show the counting of the beats. 3 beats for 3/4 and 4 beats for 4/4.

enter image description here

A nice PDF about meter is available from Toby Rush.

With that covered...

Is the measure the second 4 that tells us it is 1/4 of the duration of the beat?

No. Now we know that there are 3 or 4 beats in the beats depending on the meter.

Would it be then correct to say that a time signature of 4/4 with 90bpm would result in a single note duration of 0,17s and that there need to be at least 4 notes that equal 4 quarters?

No. 90 bpm / 60 secs = each beat is 0.66 seconds. 0.66 sec for quarter notes, 0.33 sec for eighth notes, etc. If you switch to 3/4 meter, these times per rhythmic note value will stay the same. But the feel of the phrases will shift from even 2's and 4' to 3's. Like the feel of a polka versus a waltz.


I think there may be some confusion about bpm/tempo and meter, something like a bpm number is a sort of meter.

Perhaps the thing that needs to be said is meter is about placement of accents.

Let's say you had a bpm/tempo of 120 bmp and the beginning of the music was just a kick bass drum playing quarter notes, just playing the beat. Importantly, imagine that the drummer (drum machine?) didn't place any accents on the drum. How would we hear that the music was in 3 or 4? We wouldn't know what the meter is.

We need something to happen to create an accent. The basic theory is that an accent will go on beat 1. That can be accomplished many ways. You could simply hit the kick louder on beat 1 and light on beats 2, 3, or 4. You could have another drum or instrument play on beat 1. You could use a pick up note like...

|1 2 3 4 +|1 2 3 4 +|1

All digital recording programs I have seen include a metronome/click track with a bell feature that will play some bell or other accent on beat one. That bell is there to help hear the meter more clearly.

So, let's image this kick bass plays a pickup note and stomps on beat one hard followed by 3 soft beats. That's a total of 4 beats with an emphasis after the pickup note that let's us hear that the kick after the pickup is beat 1. If we are familiar with sheet music, we can imagine that beat 1 coming after the barline.

If we speed up the bpm to 145, the measure do not get shorter. Each measure will be the pattern of one accented beat followed by 3 softer beats. The measure is still 4 beats. The duration of actual time will shorten, but the measure length - which is measured in beats rather that duration in seconds - stays the same.

Maybe the important distinction to make is between meter length and duration in seconds.

  • meter length is measured in beats per measure with measure delimited with an accent on beat 1
  • beats per minute (bpm) is the duration in seconds of a beat
  • Thx mate that helped. But for the measure, let's say I have a metronome, with a 3/4 signature for 90 bpm. What is the measure? I don't see how that has to do with the bar, I quite don't seem to understand the measure fully yet... I would have 3 beats in which interval? 3 beats in 0,67s?
    – Basti Opa
    Jan 29 '19 at 22:10
  • @BastiOpa No matter what the time signature is, the music can be played at any speed--in music it's called tempo--which you can measure in BPM. The time signature has nothing to do with tempo. The lower number of the time signature does define what note constitutes one beat, however.
    – trw
    Jan 29 '19 at 23:08
  • @BastiOpa In the above image, the vertical bars separate the measures. The top staff with the 3/4 signature has two measures of three notes each. The bottom staff with the 4/4 signature also has two measures, of four notes each. Jan 30 '19 at 0:13
  • I understand that on the paper yes. But I cannot understand what the measure means elsewhere. I cannot relate to this word anyhow. Except for it being the amount of beats in the bar on the paper but elsewhere I don't know what do to with this. Can u maybe explain to me with the example of a metronome?
    – Basti Opa
    Jan 30 '19 at 0:42
  • @BastiOpa Just try to count beats with music you know. If you find yourself counting to three, the music is probably 3/4 time. If you count to 4, it’s probably 4/4 time. Every time you start over with 1, it’s a new measure. Examples: youtu.be/pl9gZSIZqmQ is 3/4. youtu.be/ZV00F_wHXzs is 4/4. youtu.be/eab_eFtTKFs is 2/2. It’s really intuitive once you get it. You might be overthinking it.
    – trw
    Jan 30 '19 at 3:11

The measure is the part of the score between the two vertical lines.

The Bottom number tells you what note corresponds to one beat. So if that bottom number is a "4", then each beat is a quarter note (1/4 of a whole note). The top note tells you how many beats there are in the measure. If the top number is "4", then there are four beats per measure. So a signature of 4/4 means four quarter-notes per measure; 3/4 means three quarter-notes per measure.

Nothing in the time signature tells you tempo, the amount of time taken up by each beat or measure.*. The tempo is indicated separately by a notation such as "60 bpm," or "Larghetto." The tempo notation is optional.

If the tempo is marked, then that, together with the time signature, tells you how long each measure will last. For example, if the tempo notation is "60 bpm" and the signature is 3/4, then each quarter note lasts a second, and there are three quarter notes per measure, so each measure lasts 3 seconds. If the tempo notation is "120 bpm," then each quarter notes lasts half a second, so a measure of three quarter-notes would be 1-1/2 seconds.

Would it be then correct to say that a time signature of 4/4 with 90bpm would result in a single note duration of 0,17s and that there need to be at least 4 notes that equal 4 quarters?

Each quarter note will be 1/90 of a minute, or 2/3 of a second. Since there are four quarter notes per measure, each measure will last 4 * 2/3 second, or 2-2/3 seconds.

* While it is technically true that the signature does not tell you the tempo, there are conventions for certain kinds of music that do. For example, if the piece is Irish and it's in 6/8 time, it's probably a jig and it's played at around 110 bpm, with each beat being one triplet of eighth notes. When conventions like that are sufficient, the arranger may opt to not notate the tempo explicitly.

  • Check your typing. If a quarter note lasts one second, a measure won't be 0.75 seconds. :)
    – trw
    Jan 29 '19 at 23:12
  • Thank you for your post @WayneConrad. I took some time and calculated everything according to your post and have the same results now. Seems like something came through :D I still dunno what to do with the measure now. I'm working on a metronome right now and I don't see where I need the measure actually or what do with it. At least I know how to calculate the length of the measure now :P
    – Basti Opa
    Jan 30 '19 at 0:55

Now you've established that a measure (or bar) is a box in which a certain number of beats lives, and the top number tells how many beats; the bottom number tells what kind of beat each one is, you'll realise it's basically like a fraction. 3/4 tells there are three of them, and each one is a quarter.

All that is great for simple time sigs, but be careful with compound ones.

Also, since you're making a metronome, the exact number of milliseconds is important. Also, consider making one that doesn't just go click, click, click, click, but can go ping, click, click, click. Much more useful, as the ping tells the first beat of each bar, which is helpful with more than merely keeping time - it keeps the player at the correct place in the music.

  • Yeah thanks that's already implemented. That was one point where I began to understand that it was much easier than I thought. In my program I was already done but in my mind I was still far behind funny enough.
    – Basti Opa
    Jan 30 '19 at 22:13

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