What is a 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. That is to say, when one is to clap along or dance with the music, they are moving to the beat.

Songs are made up of three basic components: harmony, melody, and beat. The harmony and melody create the sounds in a song, while beat is the basic unit of time in a song—or the length pf the notes—that creates rhythm and somewhat affects the speed or tempo of a song.

Beat is a unique part of music because it refers to several aspects of a song. In popular use, it simply is rhythm. For instance, when thinking of a song, you might hum along with it (that would be the melody), or you might like the way the song makes you feel (which is usually the way the melody is set against the harmony). However, do you find yourself at times clapping your hands along with a song? Or stomping your foot? That is considered the beat.

Beat is most associated with drummers or other percussion players. It’s as if they oversee the beat!  While all instruments that produce musical notes – the keyboards, string instruments, wind instruments and brass –work to create the harmony, melody, and beat, it’s the percussion instruments that are focused on the beat.

What you should know about Beat

  • Beat is the basic a unit of time within a song
  • Beat, rhythm, tempo, speed, and meter are all synonyms for indicating the pace of a song, but they all mean slightly different things.
  • Beat is often associated with drummers and other percussion instruments. However not all songs are played with percussion instruments, so the beat is kept by all the other instruments, or if you are playing – you are keeping the beat!
  • In an orchestra with a conductor, the conductor controls the beat.


Differences between Beat, Rhythm, and Meter

All music is set up with a time signature which determines meter and rhythm. What does this mean? Sheet music is divided by “measures,” and in a time signature¸ which is symbolized by two numbers at the beginning of a song, the top number states how many beats are in a measure, and the bottom number indicates how long each beat lasts. Meanwhile, the beats are represented by a variety of notes.

The different terms used to describe the pace of a song do overlap. However this can help clarify:

  • Beat is the length of time which each note is played, which supplies the underlying pattern of a song.
  • Meter is a recurring pattern of stresses or accents that provide the pulse or beat of music.
  • Rhythm is the aspect of music comprising all the elements (as accent, meter, and tempo) that relate to the forward movement in the musical piece.


Examples of Beat

Let’s take a look at some examples of beat by using different time signatures.

Example 1

The most commonly used time signature is 4/4 time and it says that there are four beats in a measure, and each beat is a quarter note. Here is a graphic showing a staff of music in 4/4 :

The 4/4 time signature provides the instructions for interpreting the song. To understand it better you might try clapping while counting out 1-2-3-4.  If you clap a little louder on 1, you should get the idea of this time signature! But let’s look at another.

Example 2

A popular one is 3/4, also known as a waltz. In this time signature, each measure of music has 3 beats, with each beat being a quarter note.  Here is a video that explains the waltz and lets you hear how a waltz is played:

What is a Waltz? Characteristics of Waltz Music

Example 3

There are many time signatures, however most music is written within just a few. As one more example, here is a piece of music written in 6/8.  What does this mean?  Six notes in a measure, and each note is an eighth note (which is half of a quarter note).


Why is a Beat Important?

Beat is a key component of music.  Without beat there is no way to tell how fast to play the song.  Often the beat is established on-the-fly by one of the musicians who may just count out “1-2-3-4” so all the musicians know the speed to play at. This is typical when a band is performing live, or some musician friends are just jamming and having fun.

Otherwise the sheet music or the conductor sets the tempo. Regardless of how it is done, somehow the tempo or beat is established before the music can be played.

Imagine if each instrument was playing at a different speed. It would be chaotic. Some players would finish before others. Any sense of the harmony would be gone. It could and probably would just sound like noise. The harmony would be lost because the simultaneous playing of the notes that produce the harmony would no longer be simultaneous! For example, a chord structure of the notes F-A-C  is usually played together to produce the F major chord – but if the instruments playing these notes together “at the same time” were no longer playing them at the same time, the F major chord would not be played.

An example of hearing instruments play without any beat is demonstrated when an orchestra is tuning up. Although this can actually sound pleasant, it is just the sound of instruments playing, with no structure of a piece of music.  You can hear what this is like on this video:


How Does Beat Work?

As mentioned earlier, the time signature indicates the beat of a song. Using 4/4 time, the graphic below will help explain more.

You know this is a song written in 4/4 because:

  • The time signature at the left has two fours, one over the other
  • There are 4 beats in each measure of the music
  • The beats are made up of notes with different duration. There are whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes.
    • The first note you see is a half note – it has a hollow circle with a line coming out of the circle. Half notes are worth two beats. In the first measure the half note is followed by two quarter notes.
    • A quarter note looks just like the half note, except the circle is filled in. Quarter notes are worth one beat each.
    • A whole note is a hollow circle with no line, and is worth 4 quarter note beats.

All together then, in the first measure, the one half note and two quarter notes equal a total of four beats. In the second measure, the 4 quarter notes equal to 4 beats, and in the same way, the rest of the measures also equal to 4 beats.

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