Suomeksi | In English

Time values

The example below displays some note and rest values.

The long time values longa and brevis (Latin, long and brief) are rare today; they were, however, the basic unit of beat or tactus in music from the 13th to the 15th century. The word tactus derives from the Latin verb tagere ("touch"); in several languages it is denoted by a word meaning a beat. In cultures connected with German tradition, tactus gave rise to the concept of time (Takt) in music. In the 15th and 16th centuries, parchment was replaced by paper as a material to write on, and the symbols for notes gradually changed (longa and brevis used to be black and square). Simultaneously, tactus shifted towards quicker note values.

In the Baroque, crotchet was already the typical beat unit. Simultaneously, bar lines and time signatures were introduced. Gradually, a uniform way of indicating duration was established; it is based on the ratio of 1:2 when moving from longer to shorter time values. Durations outside this ratio principle are indicated by tuplets.

Textbooks often introduce time values in the context of the ratio mentioned above: a semibreve equals two minims, equals two crotchets, and so on. An additional comment usually states that a dot increases the duration of the basic note by half of its original value.

The table below displays the most common time values in a different way. The number in the left column shows the number of the top line note values included in the time value of the line in question. For example, two quavers correspond to one crotchet, three quavers to one dotted crotchet, and so on. In other words, double-dotted time values include seven of the top line time values.

As the table indicates, there is no standard way of writing "5 units" of a certain duration. In Finland, composer Paavo Heininen has used the sign x after a time value for this purpose.

The time value names are an indication of the Western tradition of "dividing" durations instead of adding up brief durations; it would be possible to perceive time value relations as brief durations added together. Additive rhythms of several music cultures can be perceived this way.

A dot after a time value symbol is usually considered an addition to the duration. In reality, dotted notes in certain times or meters (for example, 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8), are beat units naturally divided into three instead of two.

Computer-based sequencer (and notation) software also uses MIDI values for durations. The value "1" denotes the shortest possible duration. Considering that the basic time values can be grouped into triplets, quintuplets, and other groupings, it is common practice to select 240 or another number divisible with as many numbers as possible for a crotchet MIDI value. The table below shows the time values in the table above as MIDI values.

It is worth noting that if the duration wanted is, for example, 345, a number of different time values must be applied (240+60+30+15) and linked with a tie in notation. This is why the result may be unreadable when using software to transfer music in MIDI files into notation form. The actual duration of a time value may vary according to the performer's interpretation and the genre. Triplet phrasing and the early music tradition of notes inegales always render an accented quaver longer than the following quaver (see Triplet Phrasing).