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NOTE: slow waltz has 3 beats per measure and is often notated in 3/4
or 3/8 time. For more about waltz, see my aritlce on Dancing Waltz
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Theory Lesson Online
Beats Per Measure
This is one is a series of free music theory lessons. To subscribe, please
(NOTE: In the left column, you will see various related music education
resources that I think are helpful. . Please feel free to explore these
links, but be sure to come back and finish your music lesson!)
If you have questions or comments about this less, please visit my new
music theory webboard. There you can read what others are saying and
join the discussion.
I'd like to start this lesson with a question to help provoke thought
and discussion. Take a look at this musical example:
How many beats per measure are there in the
above musical example? Please click on one of the choices below, to
show your answer. (Hint: the answer is not what you may expect it
OK, next you'll see a little "movie" of the above example (plus
a few extra measures). As you view the movie (by clicking on the link
below), tap your foot to the beat and decide how many beats there are
per measure in this performance.
Beats Per Measure Movie <==click
here to watch the movie.
After viewing the above movie, answer this question:
How many beats do you hear per measure?
(Please enter your answer in the input box below.)
So even if the time signature is 3/4 that doesn't mean there are 3 beats
per measure. This should be clear from the above example.
Many teach (incorrectly) that the top number in a key signature tells
how many beats per measure. There must be thousands of music theory books
that says this. But this is wrong!
Some insist that the top number tells the number of beats per measure
even in face of the evidence that music is often not performed or conducted
according to this rule. They say, "if the time signature is 6/8,
then six beats per measure are indicated." They go on to say: "if
the music is performed quickly, it may be perceived as having fewer beats."
Hogwash, I say. A time signature was never meant to indicate the number
of beats per measure or the note that is to get one beat.
The number of beats per measure it totally at the discretion of the performers.
But what is a beat, anyway? A beat is a regular pulsation in the music
that you can tap your foot to. It is the pulsation that a conductor or
band leader typically indicates by by waiving a baton. If you try to tap
your beat 3 times per measure to the music (as performed in the movie),
you will find that uncomfortable and unnatural.
Viennese Waltz is a fast waltz. If written in 3/4 time, it would have
about 185 quarter notes per minute. How many beats per measure do you
think would a Viennese Waltz typically have?
- - - - -
The answer should be clear, but you can check your answer by looking
up "Waltz" at the Virginia
Tech Multimedia Music Dictonary. Click on "W" at the bottom
of the screen. Then pick Waltz from the list on the left. Note what they
say about Viennese Waltz. (This is a very good music dictonary, although
it looks like a work in progress.. I suggest you use it often to look
up musical terms you have questions about.
NOTE: even in this scholarly dictionary, the authors say that the top
number of the time signature tells the number of beats. That's an oversimplification.)
If the top number doesn't tell how many beats per measure, what does
it tell you? It only tells you how many notes (or the equivalent
combination of notes in terms of duration) appear within a measure. The
bottom number tells you the type of those notes. So 3/4 means there are
3 quarter notes per measure (or the equivalent). There might be one half
note and one quarter note -- since that also adds up to 3 quarter notes,
or there might be six 8th notes. There might be various other combinations
of notes, but they will add up to the equivalent of 3 quarter notes.
NOTE: the bottom number in a time signature does NOT tell you
what kind of note gets one beat. It only tells you the type of note referred
to by the top number. For example, 12/8 tells that there are 12 eighth
notes (or the equivalent) in every measure. 12/8 would have 4 beats per
measure if a dotted quarter were to get one beat.
A piece with a time signature of 6/8 is often performed with 2 beats
per measure. In this case, we might say there are 6 pulses, but
two beats per measure. Note that pulses one and four are accented:
A pulse is light rhthmical accent, but not so strong as to be considered
a beat. You might think of a pulse as a subdivision of a beat.
Pulses: One two three FOUR five six.
Beats: One ................Two
In this case, a dotted eighth note note gets one beat.
But 6/8 might have 6 beats per measure. In that case, each
8th note would get one beat.
A piece written in 4/4 time, might be performed with two beats per measure.
Then a half-note would get one beat. But notice that there would still
be 4 quarters (or the equivalent) in each measure.
Now, when you read somewhere that the top number in the time signature
tells the number of beats per measure, you can smile knowingly -- realizing
this is a gross over simplification. I suggest you don't to correct your
teacher! It will do you no good. You may want to point out that are many
exceptions to the rule. Most teachers will recall that 6/8 time is often
performed with 2 beats per measure.
But what is so wrong with this idea that the top number of the time signature
tells the number of beats per measure? . I'll tell you. It misleads beginning
music students. Again, it is the performers who decides what kind of note
get ones beat and how many beats there will be per measure. This can vary
depending on how well they know the music. When first learning a piece,
musicians may give more beats per measure as they practice a piece very
slowly. Then, when they take it up to normal tempo, they will cut down
the number of beats per measure.
By thinking that the top number must show the number of beats per measure,
students may end up thumping out those beats even if the music should
flow along with fewer beats per measure. What's the result? Their music
sounds clunky. It doesn't flow. Who is the culprit here?
Warning: if you are taking a music theory test, be sure to find out
the answer your teacher expects!
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