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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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Beats Per Measure


This is one is a series of free music theory lessons. To subscribe, please click here.

(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 to be!)

Can't tell.


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!

Have comment or question? If so, please visit my music theory webboard.