Beats are the starting point for music in time – what I call horizontal music.
The speed of music is measured in beats per minute (BPM). If you want to play at 60 BPM, look at your watch: your seconds hand is showing you the tempo. Double your seconds hand and you've got 120 BPM.
Not too hard, right?
Now look at your watch and tap 82 BPM.
Not so easy!
While watches deal in terms of 60 seconds per minute, in music we create our own divisions of the minute. This is called the tempo, measured in BPM as defined by a metronome.
You'll Find Music in Bars
Counting is a big part of music. Listen to your favorite song and chances are you'll feel the beats in groups of four – one two three four, one two three four. You are feeling each bar go by.
In the audio demo, do you feel each bar go by? What about the four-bar phrase? Notice how the drummer defines the four-bar phrase and then again a bigger fill to setup the eight-bar phrase (as the demo is fading out).
The term "bar" comes from the bar-lines drawn in written music. Each bar divides the music into a unit of four beats.
Little bit of trivia: the term 'bars' originated with the British. Americans used the term 'measures'. Today you will hear 'bars' and 'measures' used interchangeably (1).
Bars Contain Notes
Notes are what you play. Every time you pluck a string, sing a word, hit a drum, or press a key you are playing notes (2).
Rhythmic values are named based on how they fit in a bar of music.
The whole note is the most basic note. Whole notes contain four beats, or the whole bar. Drawn as an empty oval, whole notes look a bit like a hole. (In pop/jazz notation, whole notes are shaped more like an empty diamond than an oval (compare example notes above to the ones below).)
Half notes contain two beats, or half a whole note. You can play two half notes in a single bar. Visually, half notes are essentially a whole note with a stem attached.
While whole notes might be the most basic note, the quarter note is the fundamental note that we build music from. It is the beat. When you tap your foot or count to four, you are counting quarter notes. Visually, quarter notes are like half notes, just fill in the oval.
Eighth Notes and Sixteenth Notes
When we get to these notes, we are not dividing the bar as much as we are dividing the quarter note. Yes, there are eight eighth notes in a bar. But generally eighth notes are though of in relationship to the quarter note, two eighth notes per quarter note.
The same thing for sixteenth notes: dividing by two once again, we will have four sixteenths for each quarter note.
Visually, eighth notes add a flag to a quarter note. Sixteenth notes add two flags. See each note value below.
Count Out Loud
When figuring out rhythms, it is best to count out loud. Use the following audio file as a metronome and count out what is written below in tempo:
Now try it on your own.
To study this a little further, musictheory.net has a great lesson on note values here.
Question: In the comments, let me know: do you think in terms of bars when playing? What about rhythms? Do you think things like "this chord changes on beat four" or do you just 'feel' it?
Next week: Time Signatures. One of my favorite topics.
Notes and References
Mechanical metronome image via: 123RF
(1) - Arnold, D. The New Oxford Companion to Music : Volume 1: A-J. Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 170
(2) - Michael Miller. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Drums. p.68 (The section “Bars Contain Notes” was influenced by this resource.)