Can a Dotted Note Get the Beat?

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s question is, “Can a dotted note get the beat?” This is a much more complicated question than you might imagine. The simple answer is no, but with a qualified, yes. Let me explain a bit. First, a primer on time signatures. The top number in a time signature represents how many beats there are in each measure. Each measure of music has a certain number of beats. So if you have a 4 on top, naturally you have 4 beats in each measure. The bottom number represents the kind of note that gets one beat. So if you have a 4 on the bottom, the 4 stands for the quarter note and the quarter note gets one beat. That’s simple enough.

HOW MANY BEATS IN EACH MEASURE

KIND OF NOTE GETTING ONE BEAT

4 – There are 4 beats in each measure

4 – A quarter note gets one beat

Why do you have to have different notes getting one beat? Why would that ever change?

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. 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. This movement is in 6/8 time. Once again, the top number tells you there are 6 beats in a measure and the bottom number tells you an eighth note gets one beat. So yes, there are 6 beats in each measure. But when you’re playing fast, if you’re tapping along, you’re probably not tapping every single one of those eighth notes. In fact, you end up tapping twice each measure! Those are dotted quarter notes. This is sometimes referred to as a duple division of the measure because you have two groups of 3, 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 this in the time signature. So why would a composer choose to write 6/8 since 6 eighth notes is the same as 3 quarter notes. So why wouldn’t it be written in 3/4? Why do composers ever put an 8 or 16 on the bottom? 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.

In a faster piece, counting in two makes more sense.

Imagine a really fast piece in 6/8. Instead of counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 quickly, you count 1, 2 on the first and fourth beat of each measure. That’s basically having dotted quarter notes getting the beat! The time signature doesn’t indicate that precisely, but once you see your music it becomes really obvious. For example, you’ll see notes being grouped in 3’s, 3 eighth notes and 3 eighth notes in a measure, and oftentimes dotted quarter notes. This is how a dotted note will get the beat. The time signature doesn’t tell you that explicitly, but if a piece is rather fast it just makes sense to count it that way.

Notes

With a slow piece in 6/8 it may be different. For example, 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. So there are times in 6/8 where indeed there are 6 beats in the measure. But when 6/8, 3/8, 9/8, or 12/8 is fast, it’s almost always counted with the dotted quarter note getting one beat and each of those beats being divided into 3 because a dotted quarter note contains 3 eighth notes. So, composers who want a triplet feel and don’t want a whole piece written with triplets all over the place, will instead write the piece with the eighth note getting one beat. The dotted quarter notes essentially become the de facto beat with 3 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 beats has groups of 3, 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 quarters. You have two eighth notes in each beat or four sixteenth notes to each beat.

Composers sometimes will write a piece with triplets throughout the whole thing like in the famous Heller Etudes in A minor. That piece could very well have been written in 6/8 time, but for whatever reason, Heller decided to write it in four and have triplets throughout the whole piece. That is an option. But most often when you have triple divisions of each beat, rather than write with a quarter note getting one beat, composers will write with the eighth note getting one beat. Then the dotted quarter note becomes the de facto beat with 3 eight notes in each dotted quarter note. I hope this has been helpful for you! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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5 thoughts on “Can a Dotted Note Get the Beat?”

  1. When I first read the question, I wasn’t sure what you were talking about because if you wrote a piece in 4/4 time, it could be a dotted quarter followed by an eighth note, twice, and the dotted quarter would get the first beat and the third beat. But you clarified it nicely.

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