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Reading rhythm, part 1: beats, bars, and BPM

Introduction

Students have been pestering me to make a Read Music Fast! Part 3, covering rhythm, ever since I published “the best course not only in Udemy, also on the internet” (one reviewer’s description of Read Music Fast). Making a course on rhythm would be complicated because to do it properly would require animations, which would require finding an animator, so for the time being I’ve written a 12-part series on reading rhythm which should be enough to get you going.

I left rhythm notation until last, after notes and key signatures, because these days you can copy a rhythm off a recording pretty easily – more easily than you can work out the notes. Not being able to read rhythm certainly didn’t hamper the rhythmic sense of musicians who couldn’t see, like Art Tatum and Stevie Wonder, or musicians who couldn’t read, like Jimi Hendrix or Paul McCartney. I also left rhythm notation until last because it’s even more counter-intuitive than note notation, which is saying a lot. However, if you’re playing by yourself it’s useful to be able to analyse a rhythm accurately so that you can play it properly. And, as always, I’ll make it as straightforward as possible.

Before getting into notation let’s think about how rhythm works in general and define a few basic concepts, starting with beats.

Beats

What is a beat?

You probably have a good intuitive idea of what a beat is already, but let’s examine that intuition and see if we can get to a definition. In general, if you’re listening to a piece of music and you’re tapping your foot, your foot is tapping on the beat.

The snare drum at the beginning of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” is playing on the beat:

And the bass drum in Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is on the beat:

So how do we define a beat, based on those examples?

  • A beat is a regularly-occuring point in time.

Let’s break that down:

  • regularly-occuring: It doesn’t matter what other rhythms are going on in a piece (e.g. the brass riff in “Uptight” piece or the chords in “One More Time”), the beat is steady.
  • a point in time: Beats don’t have length. The snare or bass drum notes are not themselves the beat, they’re merely on the beat. The beat is a concept.

BPM

Okay, so a beat is a regularly-occurring point in time. How regularly-occurring? In other words, how much time should there be between one beat and the next? It varies.

Compare these 2 clips. The 1st one is pretty fast:

The 2nd one is pretty slow:

Another way of saying that “the 2nd piece is slower than the 1st” is to say that “the beats are further apart in the 2nd“. So how do we measure how far apart beats are?

Using Beats Per Minute – or BPM for short – which is what it sounds like: how many beats fit in a minute. Yuja Wang is playing the Strauss at around 180 BPM. (So if you tapped your foot in time to the piece you’d tap your foot roughly 180 times in a minute, or 3 times a second.) The conductor is playing Albinoni’s “Adagio” at around 60 BPM (one beat a second) – a of the speed of the 1st piece. So BPM varies quite a lot. (For comparison, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” is at 133 BPM and Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is at 123 BPM. Dance music is often around 120 BPM since that’s the rate of an elevated heartbeat.)

The speed of a piece of music is called it’s tempo (Italian for “time”).

Important: don’t confuse how far apart the beats are with how far apart the notes are. Later on in Daft Punk’s “One More Time” there’s a less eventful section which might feel slower, but the beat is the same (if you were tapping your foot, you’d continue to tap it at the same speed):

Bars

So how do we count beats?

1, 1, 1, 1?

No.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, …?

No.

We count beats like Coolio:

1, 2, 3, 4

And if we kept on going it would repeat:

1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
etc.

The point being, we don’t count beats one at a time, or in a never-ending list, we count beats in repeated groups. In this case groups of 4, which is the most common, but it can be other numbers. Take the song “Oom Pah-Pah” from the musical Oliver:

Oom-pah-pah
Oom-pah-pah

That’s a repeated group of 3:

1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3

A repeated group of beats is called a bar (or measure in the US), so in Coolio’s “1, 2, 3, 4” there are 4 beats in a bar, and in Lionel Bart’s “Oom-Pah-Pah” there are 3 beats in a bar. (The number of beats in a bar is what the top number in a time signature tells you, but we’ll get to that later.)

Note that the first beat of a bar is emphasised. They’re the “oom”s in “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which are also lower that the “pah”s:

Oom-pah-pah
Oom-pah-pah

1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3

You can hear the same pattern in Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” – the bass notes fall on the first beat of each bar, while the other beats are covered by chords:

Notation

So how to notate all of this? Well, we already established in my introduction to sight reading that a musical score is essentially a pitch/time graph, with pitch on the x-axis and time on the y-axis:

pitch / time graph

So maybe notate beats as vertical lines, perhaps with the first beat of each bar as a thicker line?

beats graph

That’s how beats tend to be notated in music recording programmes, e.g. GarageBand (click the image to enlarge):

GarageBand

So that’s how beats are notated in scores as well, right?

If only life were that simple.

We’ll talk about how beats are notated later, but first we need to talk about notes.