Robert Estrin - piano expert

Can a Dotted Note Get the Beat?

An important clarification for musicians

In this video, Robert explains dotted notes in the context of time signature and beats.

Released on March 31, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi. I'm Robert Estrin, and you're watching, your online piano resource. Today, the question is, can I dotted note get the beat? Now, this is a much more complicated question than you might imagine. The simple answer is no, but with a qualified, yes. Now, you might wonder what the heck am I talking about? Well, let me explain a bit. First, a primer on time signatures. Time signatures, of course, the top number we all know talks about how many beats there are in each measure. Each measure of music has a certain number of beats. So if you had a four on top, naturally you have four beats in each measure. The bottom number stands for the kind of note that gets one beat. So if you had a four on the bottom, the four stands for the quarter note because the quarter note gets one beat. That's simple enough.

Now, you may wonder why the heck would you have to have different notes getting one beat? Why should that ever change anyway? And what I'm about to reveal to you will make sense as to why composers choose to have a different note value getting the beat, because you think why not keep that standard? Well, I'm going to use an example of the second movement of the Clementi D Major Sonatina Opus 36, Number 6, the one that goes like this.

Now, indeed, this is in 6/8 time. Once again, top number tells you there are six beats in a measure and the eighth note gets one beat. So if you're counting this, it starts with three pickup notes and it would be counted like this. 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4. That's a mouthful.

So yes, there are six beats in each measure. But you realize when you're playing that fast, if you're tapping along, you're probably not tapping every single one of those eighth notes. In fact, what it turns out to be is you kind of tap twice each measure and that's the dotted quarter note. So this is sometimes referred to as a duple division of the measure because you have two groups of three, two dotted quarter notes, each of which essentially gets the beat. The time signature isn't written that way though. There's no way to indicate the time signature. But yes, why would a composer choose to write 6/8? Because six eighth notes is the same as three quarter notes. So why didn't he just write it in 3/4? And why does he ever, why do composers ever put an eight down to the bottom or 16? It's because the subdivisions cause the measure to be divided differently.

So you can actually count this piece of 6/8 in two, counting each dotted quarter note as one beat. Again, it starts with three eighth note pickups, so that would be the second beat, the second dotted quarter note. Watch, I'll demonstrate for you and you'll understand what I'm talking about here.

2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. Now, certainly in a much faster piece, counting in two makes much more sense. Imagine if you had a piece that's really fast and you would count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 1, 2. And that basically is a dotted note getting the beat. The time signature doesn't indicate that precisely, but once you see your music, it becomes really obvious. You'll see, for example, notes being grouped in threes, three eighth notes and three eighth notes in a measure, and often times dotted quarter notes. And this is how, yes, indeed a dotted note will get the beat. The time signature doesn't tell you that explicitly, but if a piece is rather fast.

In a slow 6/8, it may be different like in the second movement of the Opus 10 Number 3 Beethoven Sonata. You probably wouldn't count that in two because it's too slow. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1. So there are times in 6/8 indeed, there are six beats in the measure.

But when 6/8, or a 3/8, or a 9/8, or a 12/8 is fast, it's almost always counted with the dotted quarter notes getting one beat and each of those beats divided into three because a dotted quarter note contains three eighth notes. So, composers who want to triple feel and don't want a whole piece written with triplets all over the place, we'll just instead write the piece with the eighth note getting one beat and the dotted quarters essentially become the defacto beat with three divisions of each beat being the eighth notes. So that 3/8 time could be in one, 6/8 time could be in two, 9/8 time could be in three, and 12/8 time could be in four. Once again, each one of those has groups of three, which is markedly different from 4/4 time compared to 12/8 time. In 4/4 time, generally, each beat is divided in half or in quarters. You have eighth notes two to each beat or four 16th notes to each beat.

Now, composers sometimes we'll write a piece where you have triplets throughout the whole thing like in the Heller Etudes. That piece could very well have been written in 6/8 time, but for whatever reason, Heller decided to write it into four and have triplets throughout the whole thing. That is an option. But most often, when you have triple divisions of each beat, and rather than write with a quarter note getting one beat, composers will write with the eighth note getting one beat, and then the dotted quarter note becomes the defacto beat of each measure with three groups of three for each dotted quarter note.

I hope this has been helpful for you. I hope I haven't confused anyone. Write in the comments below, if you have any questions about this. Again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is Thank you for all my subscribers ringing the bell and thumbs up, all the good stuff to spread the word. We'll see you next time. Thanks for joining me.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Richard on April 10, 2021 @1:28 pm PST
Great explanation and convinces me once & for all that time signatures are for composers not performers. Performers like me only want to know tempo and beat (as you explained, how many beats/measure does one count while playing/singing). A good example is, 3/4 time vs 3/8 time: performance-wise, identical, both counted in 3.....or maybe WHY would composer elect to write a bunch of 1/8 notes instead of 1/4 notes? EG, Fur Elise, it is written in 3/8, 1/16 notes thruout, I have heard it performed from breakneck speed thru pretty slowly, both tempos having their charm. Would anything would change if Beethoven had written in 3/4 and used 1/8's instead?
Interested in your comments, thanks for your work,
Robert Estrin on April 11, 2021 @9:13 am PST
That's a really interesting question. Technically nothing would change if a piece were written with the same relative note values with different notes getting the beat. However, I would tend to think that having a faster note value getting the beat may induce a performer to play with more motion. But this certainly isn't always the case.
Alan West * VSM MEMBER * on March 31, 2021 @10:12 pm PST
6/8 does not have six beats in the bar as you have stated it has six pulses the beat is a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) which has been compounded in value and has three pulses per beat that is why it is called compound time.
Robert - host, on April 1, 2021 @8:28 am PST
Good point!
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