Pop Music Theory


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31: Time: Beats & Measures

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Lesson 31: Time: Beats & Measures

This lesson teaches how we measure time in music, using beats and measures.

The Beat

The basic unit of time that we "feel" in music is the beat. Here are some basic beat facts:

Each beat in a song (in most songs) lasts the same amount of time; that is, the beat is regular. In fact, the regular beat is what makes music "rhythmic". The beat is the basic property of music that makes you feel like clapping or dancing or moving with it.

Although each beat in a single song (in most songs) lasts the same amount of time, the speed of the beats can be very different from song to song. This is the difference between "fast" songs and "slow" songs.

How fast is a beat? The speed of the beats is very different in different songs; but some typical example beat speeds could be "the speed of a heartbeat", or "the speed of your steps walking or running", or "a speed that's comfortable to count". That last one is especially important; we often count beats, and if you're hearing a time-span in a song which is too fast or slow to count, then what you're hearing is probably not the "beat". In fact, because we often count beats, beats are sometime called counts.

Tempo. The speed of the beats in a particular song is that song's tempo. We measure tempo in beats per minute or BPM. Very roughly, the "common" range of tempos in pop music is from about 60 BPM (slow) to about 160 BPM (fast). One famous tempo is the "disco tempo", 120 BPM.


We often count the beats when we're trying to understand a song's use of time. Of course, we could just count beats from the beginning of the song, like this:

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10 ...

But, in real songs, the beats are actually grouped into "chunks" which we call measures, and we count starting over with "beat 1" for each measure, like this:

|   1   2   3   4   |   1   2   3   4   | ...

Here are some key facts about measures:
  • The vertical lines between measures are called bar lines. Written music uses these bar lines to separate the measures. "Measures" are sometimes called "bars" because of these bar lines.
  • The great majority of pop songs have 4 beats per measure. However, there are exceptions:
  • Occasional songs have 3 beats per measure, which is the "waltz" feel. Famous examples are "Open Arms" (Journey) and "Send In The Clowns" (Sondheim).
  • Some songs have an occasional odd measure with a different number of beats (e.g. 3, 5, or 6).
  • Rarely, a whole song may use some other number of beats per measure. Famous examples are the "Mission Impossible" theme and "Take 5" (Dave Brubeck) (both of these use 5 beats per measure), and "Money" (Pink Floyd) (7 beats per measure, or "4 + 3" if you prefer).
  • Beat 1 of each measure is sometimes called the down beat.

Practicing Counting

To understand beats and measures, you can't just read about them; you must "feel" them. Some people can do this "naturally", but other people need to learn and practice this. The best way to learn this is simple: Just count the beats (say "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 ...") while listening to real songs. You may need a musician to help you and tell you if you're "doing it right".

Next: When you understand and can "feel" beats and measures, then you're ready to start learning to read rhythms, in Lesson 32: Note Lengths.

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1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps
7: Whole-Steps
8: Steps Game
9: Scales
10: Major Scale 1-2-3
11: Major 1-2-3 Games
12: Major Scale 1-5
13: Major 1-5 Games
14: Chords: Major Triads
15: Major Triad Games
16: Minor Triads
17: Minor Triad Games
18: Major Scale 1-8
19: Major Scale Games
20: Keys
21: Roman Numeral Chords
22: Scales Above 8
23: Diatonic Triads
24: Using Diatonics
25: Tonic Function
26: Subdominant & Dominant
27: Diatonic Function Analysis
28: Melody: Chord Tones
29: Treble Staff
30: Treble Staff Game
31: Time: Beats & Measures
32: Note Lengths
33: Tied & Dotted Notes
34: Rhythm: Rests
35: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
36: Major Pentatonic Scale
37: 7th Chords
38: 7ths Games
39: Pitch & Frequency

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