Isn't 3/4 time kind of a misnomer?

Guitar Tricks Forum > Music Theory > Isn't 3/4 time kind of a misnomer?

dlwalke

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Joined: 02/02/19

Posts: 60

Just finished GF1 which concludes with some basic rhythms (4/4 and 3/4). 4/4 makes perfect sense to me but 3/4 seems like a misnomer. I appreciate that it's the system we got, but if musicians were designing a new system from scratch, wouldn't it be more logical to devise something called 3rd notes and rename what we now call 3/4 time, 3/3 time instead. A quarter, in normal language is by definition one-fourth of something. In 3/4 time, the quarter notes are not a quarter of anything (well, I guess you could say that they are a quarter of 1.33 bars but that would be ridiculous). I guess nothing really hinges on this. I can understand and play 3/4 time. It just seems confusing for no good reason. But maybe there is a good reason and if there is, I'm probably not understanding something that I should understand. Hence my observation/question. Thanks.

#1

Just finished GF1 which concludes with some basic rhythms (4/4 and 3/4). 4/4 makes perfect sense to me but 3/4 seems like a misnomer. I appreciate that it's the system we got, but if musicians were designing a new system from scratch, wouldn't it be more logical to devise something called 3rd notes and rename what we now call 3/4 time, 3/3 time instead. A quarter, in normal language is by definition one-fourth of something. In 3/4 time, the quarter notes are not a quarter of anything (well, I guess you could say that they are a quarter of 1.33 bars but that would be ridiculous). I guess nothing really hinges on this. I can understand and play 3/4 time. It just seems confusing for no good reason. But maybe there is a good reason and if there is, I'm probably not understanding something that I should understand. Hence my observation/question. Thanks.

john of MT

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Joined: 10/08/09

Posts: 1018

Originally Posted by: dlwalke

... A quarter, in normal language is by definition one-fourth of something. In 3/4 time, the quarter notes are not a quarter of anything...

Quarter notes are one-fourth of a whole note. See if this helps, https://www.guitartricks.com/lesson.php?input=24859&s_id=2052

The tutorial about timing starts here, https://www.guitartricks.com/tutorial.php?input=2052

Have fun.

"It takes a lot of devotion and work, or maybe I should say play, because if you love it, that's what it amounts to. I haven't found any shortcuts, and I've been looking for a long time."
-- Chet Atkins

#2

Originally Posted by: dlwalke

... A quarter, in normal language is by definition one-fourth of something. In 3/4 time, the quarter notes are not a quarter of anything...

Quarter notes are one-fourth of a whole note. See if this helps, https://www.guitartricks.com/lesson.php?input=24859&s_id=2052

The tutorial about timing starts here, https://www.guitartricks.com/tutorial.php?input=2052

Have fun.

"It takes a lot of devotion and work, or maybe I should say play, because if you love it, that's what it amounts to. I haven't found any shortcuts, and I've been looking for a long time."
-- Chet Atkins

ChristopherSchlegel

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Joined: 08/09/05

Posts: 5517

Originally Posted by: dlwalke

I appreciate that it's the system we got, but if musicians were designing a new system from scratch, wouldn't it be more logical to devise something called 3rd notes and rename what we now call 3/4 time, 3/3 time instead.

But then you are redefining the entire system across the board & different time signatures do not relate to each other. The lower numbers have to be equally divisable or there is no system wide integation.

The lower number is somewhat like a fraction, but not entirely. It's actual function is to specify what kind of symbol gets one beat (or count). So a bottom 4 means that the symbol of the quarter note gets one beat. The upper number contains the number of beats in the measure.

So the quarter note in 3/4 time doesn't specify a third of a measure. It specifies one beat of 3 in that measure.

Now there are are rhythmic notations that specify subdivisions with odd nubmers, for example a triplet, or a phrase of 4:3. But these are placed over bracketed notes in the notation.

But without the solid, dependable 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. on the bottom of the time signature, those subdivisions can't be used consistently across the board on any given time signature.

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
A quarter, in normal language is by definition one-fourth of something. In 3/4 time, the quarter notes are not a quarter of anything (well, I guess you could say that they are a quarter of 1.33 bars but that would be ridiculous). I guess nothing really hinges on this. I can understand and play 3/4 time. It just seems confusing for no good reason. But maybe there is a good reason and if there is, I'm probably not understanding something that I should understand.[/p]

That's a good observation! But I think the problem with that line of thinking is that you are conflating the time signature too literally with a mathematical fraction. And it's kind of apples & oranges you are comparing.

Hope that helps!

Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory

#3

Originally Posted by: dlwalke

I appreciate that it's the system we got, but if musicians were designing a new system from scratch, wouldn't it be more logical to devise something called 3rd notes and rename what we now call 3/4 time, 3/3 time instead.

But then you are redefining the entire system across the board & different time signatures do not relate to each other. The lower numbers have to be equally divisable or there is no system wide integation.

The lower number is somewhat like a fraction, but not entirely. It's actual function is to specify what kind of symbol gets one beat (or count). So a bottom 4 means that the symbol of the quarter note gets one beat. The upper number contains the number of beats in the measure.

So the quarter note in 3/4 time doesn't specify a third of a measure. It specifies one beat of 3 in that measure.

Now there are are rhythmic notations that specify subdivisions with odd nubmers, for example a triplet, or a phrase of 4:3. But these are placed over bracketed notes in the notation.

But without the solid, dependable 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. on the bottom of the time signature, those subdivisions can't be used consistently across the board on any given time signature.

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
A quarter, in normal language is by definition one-fourth of something. In 3/4 time, the quarter notes are not a quarter of anything (well, I guess you could say that they are a quarter of 1.33 bars but that would be ridiculous). I guess nothing really hinges on this. I can understand and play 3/4 time. It just seems confusing for no good reason. But maybe there is a good reason and if there is, I'm probably not understanding something that I should understand.[/p]

That's a good observation! But I think the problem with that line of thinking is that you are conflating the time signature too literally with a mathematical fraction. And it's kind of apples & oranges you are comparing.

Hope that helps!

Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory

VulcanCCIT

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Joined: 04/20/19

Posts: 36

As ChristopherSchlegel indicates, do not think of it as math...(im an engineer so I can relate to your quandry...) but relate to it as a construct or a division of TIME....

a clock... 4/4 time... 1 hour... 3/4 time... 45 minutes... 1/2 time...30 mins...

put another way...using math...

4/4 time... 1 second per note... 3/4 time = .75 seconds per note...1/2 time = .5 seconds per note... given there are 4 NOTES per measure....

all of this is per measure though.... now the "Math" part gets confusing when you get to 3/2 time lol... im still a beginner on guitar, and Piano, but I come from a Clarinet background and learned time signitures early on...

ChristopherSchlegel did I state this correctly?

Chuck,

Phoenix, Arizona

#4

As ChristopherSchlegel indicates, do not think of it as math...(im an engineer so I can relate to your quandry...) but relate to it as a construct or a division of TIME....

a clock... 4/4 time... 1 hour... 3/4 time... 45 minutes... 1/2 time...30 mins...

put another way...using math...

4/4 time... 1 second per note... 3/4 time = .75 seconds per note...1/2 time = .5 seconds per note... given there are 4 NOTES per measure....

all of this is per measure though.... now the "Math" part gets confusing when you get to 3/2 time lol... im still a beginner on guitar, and Piano, but I come from a Clarinet background and learned time signitures early on...

ChristopherSchlegel did I state this correctly?

Chuck,

Phoenix, Arizona

ChristopherSchlegel

Guitar Tricks Instructor

Joined: 08/09/05

Posts: 5517

Originally Posted by: VulcanCCIT

ChristopherSchlegel did I state this correctly?

Yes, thanks! You have the basic idea. I think the original poster was trying to extend the math fraction analogy beyond the point of usefulness.

Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory

#5

Originally Posted by: VulcanCCIT

ChristopherSchlegel did I state this correctly?

Yes, thanks! You have the basic idea. I think the original poster was trying to extend the math fraction analogy beyond the point of usefulness.

Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory

dlwalke

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Joined: 02/02/19

Posts: 60

OK, I think I get it...maybe. To be honest, as my original question was some time ago, I am having a difficult time reconstructing the source of my earlier confusion. But maybe I was thinking that 4/4 made sense because 4 quarter notes add up to 1 and in 4/4 time, four quarter notes = 1 measure. But in 3/4 time, 3 quarter notes don't add up to 1 even though they also take up 1 measure.

So is the choice of the lower number (if its not a fraction I guess its not really a denominator) at least a little bit arbitrary? What i mean by that is if you had a piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/4 time and another piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/8 time, wouldn't they sound exactly the same (assuming that all the note values were halved in the 2nd piece of music).

#6

OK, I think I get it...maybe. To be honest, as my original question was some time ago, I am having a difficult time reconstructing the source of my earlier confusion. But maybe I was thinking that 4/4 made sense because 4 quarter notes add up to 1 and in 4/4 time, four quarter notes = 1 measure. But in 3/4 time, 3 quarter notes don't add up to 1 even though they also take up 1 measure.

So is the choice of the lower number (if its not a fraction I guess its not really a denominator) at least a little bit arbitrary? What i mean by that is if you had a piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/4 time and another piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/8 time, wouldn't they sound exactly the same (assuming that all the note values were halved in the 2nd piece of music).

jarkko.eklund

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Joined: 09/25/13

Posts: 183

Waltz is maybe the most familiar style for 3/4 rhythm. A steady 3 beats per measure.

#7

Waltz is maybe the most familiar style for 3/4 rhythm. A steady 3 beats per measure.

ChristopherSchlegel

Guitar Tricks Instructor

Joined: 08/09/05

Posts: 5517

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
But in 3/4 time, 3 quarter notes don't add up to 1 even though they also take up 1 measure.

Right, but that's because the 4 indicates the type of note that gets one count. It indicates what type of graphic symbol to be read as 1 count in the measure.

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
So is the choice of the lower number (if its not a fraction I guess its not really a denominator) at least a little bit arbitrary?

Not really. Certain choices might be interchangable. There might 2 different time sigs that give the same aural result.

But this is more about the composer (or transcriber, the person writing the music notation) trying to capture the rhythmic pulse of the music. As a rough linguistic analogy, you could say basically the same things 2 different ways.

1. The guitarist struggled to understand the difference between 2 time signatures.

2. The guitarist had a hard time comprehending how 2 different time signatures were different.

Both sentences convey the same meaning, but using slightly different words & orders, & possibly stress points.

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
What i mean by that is if you had a piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/4 time and another piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/8 time, wouldn't they sound exactly the same (assuming that all the note values were halved in the 2nd piece of music).

Yes, they could sound exactly the same. But a piece of music might be written one way or the other in order to indicate how the performer should be counting the notes, or thinking of them as they phrase the music.

4/4 has 1/4 notes counted 1-2-3-4. This leaves a lot of subdivision space for 1/8th & 1/16th notes.

4/8 has 1/8th notes counted 1-2-3-4 with less space for subdivisions!

A practical example would be a song in which the music is in 4/4 for a while & the melody might have some 1/4 notes mixed with 1/8th notes. But then mixed in the middle of a phrase or at the end of phrase, there might be a series of 4 1/8th notes that add up to 2 beats of music that have to get indicated in order to make a seamless whole. So the perform knows how to play right through all those changes & make it sound smooth & connected.

So, the composer or transcriber uses 4/4, but then switches to 1 measure of 4/8 to indicate this change, then back to 4/4 again. Makes sense?

Most pop & rock music doesn't have to consider these factors. The tunes are in one sig & just keep trucking right through to the end in the same sig. But some music is more complex & makes wider use of time sigs. Some classical, jazz, & in my personal experience, Broadway musicals do this often. That's because there is frequently the need of matching music to dialogue or choreography. So other time sigs really help make difficult things or complex rhythmic ideas easy to indicate, understand & play.

Hope this helps!

Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory

#8

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
But in 3/4 time, 3 quarter notes don't add up to 1 even though they also take up 1 measure.

Right, but that's because the 4 indicates the type of note that gets one count. It indicates what type of graphic symbol to be read as 1 count in the measure.

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
So is the choice of the lower number (if its not a fraction I guess its not really a denominator) at least a little bit arbitrary?

Not really. Certain choices might be interchangable. There might 2 different time sigs that give the same aural result.

But this is more about the composer (or transcriber, the person writing the music notation) trying to capture the rhythmic pulse of the music. As a rough linguistic analogy, you could say basically the same things 2 different ways.

1. The guitarist struggled to understand the difference between 2 time signatures.

2. The guitarist had a hard time comprehending how 2 different time signatures were different.

Both sentences convey the same meaning, but using slightly different words & orders, & possibly stress points.

Originally Posted by: dlwalke
What i mean by that is if you had a piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/4 time and another piece of music that specified 80 bpm and it was in 4/8 time, wouldn't they sound exactly the same (assuming that all the note values were halved in the 2nd piece of music).

Yes, they could sound exactly the same. But a piece of music might be written one way or the other in order to indicate how the performer should be counting the notes, or thinking of them as they phrase the music.

4/4 has 1/4 notes counted 1-2-3-4. This leaves a lot of subdivision space for 1/8th & 1/16th notes.

4/8 has 1/8th notes counted 1-2-3-4 with less space for subdivisions!

A practical example would be a song in which the music is in 4/4 for a while & the melody might have some 1/4 notes mixed with 1/8th notes. But then mixed in the middle of a phrase or at the end of phrase, there might be a series of 4 1/8th notes that add up to 2 beats of music that have to get indicated in order to make a seamless whole. So the perform knows how to play right through all those changes & make it sound smooth & connected.

So, the composer or transcriber uses 4/4, but then switches to 1 measure of 4/8 to indicate this change, then back to 4/4 again. Makes sense?

Most pop & rock music doesn't have to consider these factors. The tunes are in one sig & just keep trucking right through to the end in the same sig. But some music is more complex & makes wider use of time sigs. Some classical, jazz, & in my personal experience, Broadway musicals do this often. That's because there is frequently the need of matching music to dialogue or choreography. So other time sigs really help make difficult things or complex rhythmic ideas easy to indicate, understand & play.

Hope this helps!

Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory

dlwalke

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Joined: 02/02/19

Posts: 60

Yes, thanks.

#9

Yes, thanks.