Timing in MIDI files

In a standard MIDI file, there’s information in the file header about “ticks per quarter note”, a.k.a. “parts per quarter” (or “PPQ”). For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll consider “beat” and “quarter note” to be synonymous, so you can think of a “tick” as a fraction of a beat. The PPQ is stated in the last word of information (the last two bytes) of the header chunk that appears at the beginning of the file. The PPQ could be a low number such as 24 or 96, which is often sufficient resolution for simple music, or it could be a larger number such as 480 for higher resolution, or even something like 500 or 1000 if one prefers to refer to time in milliseconds.

What the PPQ means in terms of absolute time depends on the designated tempo. By default, the time signature is 4/4 and the tempo is 120 beats per minute. That can be changed, however, by a “meta event” that specifies a different tempo. (You can read about the Set Tempo meta event message in the file format description document.) The tempo is expressed as a 24-bit number that designates microseconds per quarter-note. That’s kind of upside-down from the way we normally express tempo, but it has some advantages. So, for example, a tempo of 100 bpm would be 600000 microseconds per quarter note, so the MIDI meta event for expressing that would be FF 51 03 09 27 C0 (the last three bytes are the Hex for 600000). The meta event would be preceded by a delta time, just like any other MIDI message in the file, so a change of tempo can occur anywhere in the music.

Delta times are always expressed as a variable-length quantity, the format of which is explained in the document. For example, if the PPQ is 480 (standard in most MIDI sequencing software), a delta time of a dotted quarter note (720 ticks) would be expressed by the two bytes 85 50 (hexadecimal).

So, bearing all that in mind, there is a correspondence between delta times expressed in terms of ticks and note values as we think of them in human terms. The relationship depends on the PPQ specified in the header chunk. For example, if the PPQ is 96 (hex 60), then a note middle C on MIDI channel 10 with a velocity of 127 lasting a dotted quarter note (1.5 beats) would be expressed as
00 99 3C 7F // delta time 0 ticks, 153 60 127
90 99 3C 00 // delta time 144 ticks, 153 60 0