B is for Beat

In music, the beat is the basic unit of time.  It’s a way that musicians count the notes being played to stay in synch with each other, and is often associated with the pulse that listeners tend to feel in the music.  The beat is the part of the music that you would clap your hands, or tap your feet, hum, or dance along with.  The music that people move to is the beat.  Recognizing the beat in a song means finding the pattern and speed of the music.  Almost all the music we hear is built on the foundation of a beat.  A music’s beat helps us to measure out how long or short sounds in the music should be and how they should be arranged.  Even when music is slow and it isn’t always obvious, there will normally still beat ticking along under the music.  Beats tend to be regular and steady even when the music sounds uneven and irregular.  The beat almost always corresponds with the piece’s time signature.

A beat is a single rhythmic unit of measurement in music.  A measure or bar is a section of a piece of music that contains a specific number of beats, depending on the piece’s time signature, which is represented by what looks like a fraction.  The bottom number identifies a certain kind of note; the top number specifies how many of those notes there are in each measure.  For instance, in 4/4 time, there are four quarter-note beats per measure, in 3/4 time, there are three quarter-note beats per measure, and so on.

The beat is the steady pulse that you feel in the tune, like a clock’s tick, or the way a person’s heart beats.  Musical terms can be confusing, as some of the notes used in the melody will also be used in the harmony, because there’s always overlap.  There always seems to be two or three ways of describing the same thing, while the same term can be used to describe several completely different things.  Learning music is difficult because of all the circular definitions, where a term that you don’t fully understand is described using another term that you don’t understand.  Thus, in order for you to fully understand the beat, I feel that I should introduce you to harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, texture and timbre.

A musical composition is a complicated organization of melodies and harmonies, which are in turn complicated organizations of notes and rhythms.  Melody and harmony, are based on the arrangement of pitches.  Notes are frequencies, while melodies and harmonies are rhythms.  Rhythm exists in relation to an underlying beat or tempo, so rhythm is really a form of harmony and melody, but rhythm has to be in harmony with the beat.  Music involves chords, keys, notes, pitch, scales, tones and trying to learn all of this is enough to make your brain explode.  It takes a long time to try and explain music, because our brains are able to process music hundreds of times faster than words or symbols could ever handle.

Harmony is a good place to start as music can have a harmonic beat, or a harmonic rhythm and even a harmonic tempo.  Since beat is measured by time, harmonic rhythm is used to tell how long each chord lasts, or the rate at which the chords change or are progressing.  This helps to differentiate the different parts of a song and it can create excitement with basic chords.  Harmony is more than one note that when sounding together creates a chord or something that sounds nice together.  Harmony is created when the individual parts of the music, multiple tones from multiple sources are joined together simultaneously, in a pleasing way.  The relationship between different notes played at the same time is called harmony.  Harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords, and the interaction between them and it defines how they relate (or agree) with one another.  Harmony acts as notes that support a melody.  When you play all the notes of a chord, you’re creating a type of harmony.  The strumming of notes on a guitar can create a harmony; an orchestra of instruments playing together creates a harmony; and two or more voices singing together can create a harmony.

Melody is a collection of musical tones that are grouped together as a single entity and it becomes the tune that you sing or the part that you hum or whistle to yourself.  Melody is what results from playing notes of different pitches.  Melody is a pleasing series of musical notes that form the main part of a song or piece of music.  Melody is a dominant line that creates a tone pattern.  It’s a succession of musical pitches (notes) one after another that produce a musical line that you can follow.  If you sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’, or ‘Three Blind Mice’, you’re singing a melody.  Melody is defined with pitch and duration, and it is usually the most memorable aspect of a song, the one the listener remembers and is able to perform.  A melody is, in its simplest definition, a musical succession that combines pitch and rhythm to create something listeners perceive as cohesive, which is casually referred to as the tune.

Pitches are discrete tones with individual frequencies.  A sound wave is the vibrations of individual air molecules that go back and forth, and the speed or rate of this vibration is referred to as its frequencyPitch is how the human ear hears and understands that frequency.  The pitch of a sound is determined by the rate of vibration, or frequency of the sound wave.  Sounds are higher or lower in pitch according to the frequency of vibration of the sound waves producing them.  A high pitch sound corresponds to a high frequency sound wave and a low pitch sound corresponds to a low frequency sound wave.

Rhythm is the duration that each note is played.  It has to do with the beat and the combinations of lengths of notes.  The main difference between melody and rhythm is that melody is a timely linear sequence of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity while rhythm is the way music is systematically divided into beats that are repeated a particular number of times within a bar at a collectively understood tempo.  Rhythm is the result of a regular, repeated pattern of sounds or movements that follows a steady beat.  Rhythm can be comprised of beats and/or notes, but more specifically, it is a series of different note lengths and the term rhythm is often synonymous with tempo.  Rhythm is the time element of music where several evenly spaced notes in time can be played in a row.  Everything in music has rhythm because it all happens in time with a repeated pattern.  Rhythm is the actual sound or time value of the notes, which in a song would also be the same as the words.

Tempo refers to the pace which the music is played at and this time deals with how fast or slow the beat is.  The tempo indicates the speed, mood, the feel of a piece, and it serves as a guide for musical speed and interpretation.  Tempo can be thought of as a metronome, as this shows you how fast or slow you should play the music.  Tempo can be thought of a being the overall speed, while pacing is the rate of that speed and timing is the placement of particular notes, phrases, cadences, and musical gestures.

Texture is how the tempo, melodic, and harmonic materials are combined in a musical composition, determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece.  Texture refers to the way music is written, as it can be either a single line melody, multiple melodies combining to make harmony, or notes played at the same time to make chords that accompany a melody.  It can be viewed as the number of layers that exist in a piece music, which equates to its density.

Timbre is tone color, a quality of auditory sensations produced by the tone of a sound wave.  This is what makes a musical note sound different from another one.  Timbre is used to distinguish one sound from another and it is often described with words such as brassy, breathy, bright, flat, light, rough, round, sharp, smooth, or smoky.  While pitch may denote the exact frequency of a sound, many different instruments can produce the same pitch.  To describe a sound further, the quality of its timbre is invoked.  Timbre is determined by the harmonic content and this is the characteristic quality of a musical note, sound, or tone that is made by a particular voice or musical instrument which is independent of pitch and loudness.  Timbre is the characteristic that allows us to distinguish between one instrument and another.

If a person is able to walk at the same speed without speeding up or slowing down, that is a good way to illustrate the beat in music.  It is much easier to dance to music that has a steady beat, and it would be much more productive to rock your children to sleep with the same motion.  I am going to leave you with The Lumineers song ‘Ho Hey’, because it has a steady beat and you might be able to use this to rock somebody to sleep.

Written for the April A-Z challenge.

25 thoughts on “B is for Beat

  1. You explained this beautifully! I used to ‘beat myself up’ over not becoming fluent in a second language. I admire folks with that ability. But, having played multiple instruments throughout my life (None expertly), I came to realize that I DID know a different language. To read and ‘speak’ music is a language that broadens those who do!
    I also speak fluent ‘toddler’ from my years as a day care provider. I count that as a skill too. LOL

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      1. I won’t bore you with my dabbling in music. That may require a post one day.
        But I want you to know that ‘muscle memory’ is REAL. I picked up a flute 30 years after putting it away and struggled for a moment from trying too hard. Then I took a breath, relaxed, and ‘just played’. My hands remembered what my brain was struggling with. It was a magical moment!

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  2. The Look were one hit wonders over here.

    Girls are dancing all around them just for me
    And the party wouldn’t swing if not for me
    I’ve made you hearts jump, I’ve caused a heat
    I’m in demand I am the beat

    I’ve turned a girl into a heaving senseless wreck
    Made the captain of a ship dance off his deck
    I’ve made the old man jump to his feet
    I’m in demand I am the beat

    All round the world the people know my name
    In heaven and hell they know me too
    Across the world the people know me now
    I am the beat and I know you

    You always listen to me on your radio
    I’ll bet your buddy all he really needs to know
    And who kept the lawman down on the street
    I’m in demand I am the beat

    All round the world the people know my name
    In heaven and hell they know me too
    Across the world the people know me now
    I am the beat and I know you

    When the martian came to earth I made him dance
    And Mr. Crooper had to thank me for his chance
    And who made the zombies all tap their feet
    I’m in demand I am the beat

    I’m in demand
    I’m in demand
    I’m in demand I am the
    I am the beat
    beat
    beat
    beat (repeat to fade)

    written by Mick bass & Jonny Whetstone

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  3. Well done! You took the concept of ‘beat’ well beyond the simple definition of the term in its bare musical context.

    Now, how do you tie in The Beat Generation and Beatniks? 🙂

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