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Refresher on Beats, Bars and Rhythm

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This page is for newbies, though it also has some "metronome musings" of more general interest.

If already very familiar with beats and measures in the musical sense you probably want to skip to [understanding_time_signatures.htm Understanding time signatures ]. Or if familiar with time signatures too, skip to [counting_music.htm Counting Music] - which is about whether counting the beats or tapping to music as you play helps or hinders the rhythm of the music and what you can do about it.

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Vanishing Metronome Clicks, for Timing Sensitivity: And other Metronome Techniques - Many Ways to Use a Metronome


Part 1 - finding the time signature of your tune.

You need to find the basic beat first. Then you need to find out where the bar starts. This then tells you how many beats there are in a measure. Then you can set the metronome appropriately with the correct time signature for your tune. That's what we'll look at here.

Also this page has some "metronome musings" about why it is tricky to find the time signature of a tune, what it is about music that makes this to some extent a bit ambiguous. (It's because of the "fractal nature of musical rhythm").

Rhythm and speech

If completely new to all this, then a good start is to start with the rhythm of lyrics.

When we speak then we already use rhythm. When singing then you fit the rhythm of your speech to the rhythm of the tune.

So, the natural emphasis of the words and poetry gets carried through to the song, and helps determine what the bar is.

I'll use a lullaby for my example as the bar is straightforward and easy to recognise.

The beat

First you need to find the beat. For many songs this is just the beat you naturally clap to when you clap along with the music.

So for instance with "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", the beats are:

"Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,
How I wonder what you are".

So each line in the lyric has four beats in it.

This ball bouncing on lyrics may help:

(for more bounce on lyrics videos for other songs, see Bounce On Lyrics in the Bounce Metronome video resources pages.

The bar beat

This is where lyrics help you to find the bar beat. Just naturally because of the tune and the poetry of the words, you will find you slightly emphasize the first beat in the line more than the other beats. That's the bar beat (or "down beat" so called because a conductor marks it by raising the baton high and then dropping it) which starts the bar.

Each line of the lyric lasts for one bar of the music, so each bar has four beats in it.

So the rhythm of the tune is 4/4 The top number of the time signature 4/4 says the number of beats in the bar, here 4.

The bottom number tells you how to notate the rhythm in music notation. /4 says to notate it with quarter notes (UK crotchets). If it says /8 then you should notate it using eighth notes (UK quavers).

If there are 4 beats to the bar, the rhythm is most usually notated using quarter notes. This makes it a whole note for the complete bar (UK semibreve). That's just a convention. You could notate it as 4/16 say (sixteenth notes or UK semiquavers). The rhythm is the same to all intents and purposes. But it is just never done like that, not for a simple song in 4/4.

Other songs

It is easiest probably to hear the time signature for music with lyrics, as the words help you keep track of your place in the rhythm.

If there are three beats to a bar, you still use quarter notes (UK crotchets) and notate it as 3/4. Two beats to a bar are notated as 2/4.

The first beat of the measure isn't always the loudest. The song writer or composer may play with your expectations and start the bar with a weak beat.

Often the harmony changes at the start of the bar. Or you may pick it out by the way the melody is phrased. Some music keeps changing from one bar to the next with several sizes of bar.

But lets keep things simple here. If you get a bit lost with a song, try something else with a simpler rhythm to it.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is in simple time. Let's go on to compound time.

The rhythm of My bonny lies over the ocean - Compound time

Compound time is a rhythm with beats grouped together in threes. Usually with 6, 9 or 12 beats to the bar.

What makes this potentially a bit confusing is that if you clap along to it, you probably clap two beats to a bar rather than six, so you might think it is in 2/4.

Also another thing that makes these time signature confusing - you often have two bars to each line of the song, rather than the single bar to a line you get in 4/4.

An example is "My bonny lies over the ocean":

"My bonny lies over the ocean,
My bonny lies over the sea.

Try putting in the emphasis as before, speak those words and see which syllables are the loudest

This is what you probably get:

My bonny lies over the oc -ean,
My bonny lies over the sea. _

There oc-ean is two emphasized beats one after another, and the _ is a rest, a silence for one beat.

So - if you haven't heard about compound time, you would probably call this rhythm 4/4 like Twinkle Twinkle little star. It has four beats to each line after all. And if you clap to it you would clap to those four beats as well too.

And - you wouldn't be wrong, not really. You could notate it as 4/4, just that it's not the normal way to do it and it would make the score a bit complicated (lots of triplets).

However there's a sort of lilting feel to this song - very like sea waves rising and falling. If you listen carefully, it happens because the syllables often fall into threes, with every third beat emphasized:bonn y lies ov er the oc -ean

Though many of those beats are skipped (much more often than in 4/4 type songs), e.g. in the last word oc -ean - another thing that makes these rhythms confusing for newbies.

To highlight the use of triplets, you count in eighth notes rather than quarter notes (UK quavers). And in songs you often use two measures to a line. That makes six eighth notes to a bar, so you notate it as 6/8.

Again that's just a matter of convention. If it has this triplet feel with the emphasis on the third beat, of the bar then it gets notated with 6/8.

So one bar will be:

bonny lies over the

with six beats, the fourth beat emphasized at the middle of the bar.

If you listen to it again you can hear that there is a strong emphasis in the middle of the line, so it's understandable that it gets divided into two bars. Though - there's also a fairly strong emphasis in the middle of the line for Twinkle Twinkle and many other songs in 4/4 - you could divide those into two bars to perhaps - just not normally done for those.

The alternative notations (which would surprise your performers)

You could notate one bar of 6/8 as 2/4 with lots of triplets in the score.

You could notate two bars of 6/8 as one bar of 4/4 again with lots of triplet eighth notes (UK quavers).

You could also notate two bars of this rhythm in 12/8, as

bonny lies over the oc -ean,

all one bar.

Or break it up further and notate it as four bars of 3/4 even.

But any of these would surprise your performers.

When the rhythm is too fast to conduct in 6/8 it may often be conducted in the same way as 2/4 with two beats to the bar. However even then, though conducted in 2/4 (similarly to the way you clap the rhythm if you clap along) it is still notated as 6/8.

All this is just convention. If you used one of the other ways to notate "My bonny lies over the ocean", e.g. as 2/4 or as 4/4, with triplets, then you would surprise your performers. But the song would sound pretty much the same with any of these notations, at most rather subtle differences in performance.

Perhaps part of the reason why there are few songs in 12/8 is because even when a song feels like 12/8, it is easier to notate it in 6/8.

The Mexican dance "Son Jaliscience" is an example where there's discussion about what time signature is best to notate it.

With all these alternative notations for the same tune which can sound almost the same, it is no wonder that newbies can find it puzzling sometimes to know what exactly the time signature is for a tune.

What is it about music that let's you have all these notations that are really not that different in sound?

Tunes fall into larger and larger patterns in a natural way. Especially, it is normal for bars to fall into two bar patterns. And there's a slight extra emphasis on the first bar in each pair, just like the extra emphasis on the first triplet in 6/8.. Then again, pairs of bars also fall into pairs to make larger four bar patterns, often these pair up again in 8 bar patterns and it is very common to have patterns of 16 bars or more.

Also the other way, bars are often made up of smaller patterns - here 6/8 is made up of two halves each of three beats for instance, which behave a little bit like small bars in their own right.

So with all this pattern in the music, with larger patterns that look a lot like smaller patterns - to some extent it is an arbitrary convention, where you choose to put the bar lines.

Really the confusion here is because musical rhythms are often naturally a bit "fractal" - they look similar on different time scales. So even if you notated My Bonnie or Greensleeves as say 16/4 for a long measure of two lines per bar, with triplet divisions of each quarter note - the score would be a bit unwieldy and hard to read. But you could make a case for it perhaps.

Indeed with 6/8, you can also go the other way and make the bar shorter - you could notate this rhythm as 3/4 with each triplet notated as a very fast bar of 3/4 (or perhaps 3/8). That would be an even more eccentric thing to do - but not exactly wrong, as you would still get the same rhythm from your performers. It would just be a very eccentric thing to do for a tune that falls easily and naturally into 6/8.

You can't really say the musical notation is wrong if the result sounds as intended by the composer.

So anyway, conventionally this song and others like it are normally notated as 6/8, six eighth note (quaver) beats to the bar, so that you beat eighth notes instead of quarter notes. Then conventionally you emphasize not just the first beat of the bar, but also have a weaker emphasis on the fourth beat a well:

Other types of compound time

This sort of thing also happens with nine beats to a bar e.g. for a slip jig. Any rhythm which naturally falls into patterns of three weak beats like this is known as compound time. 12/8 is a bit more rarely used but quite common in classical music, it has twelve beats, falling into four triplets, to each bar. So one bar of 12/8 will sound like the rhythm of one line of bonn y lies ov er the oc -ean.

Now try [how_to_stay_in_time.htm Part 2 How to stay in time ]

Finding the rhythm of a tune without lyrics

A tune without lyrics is a special challenge for a newbie - to pick up where the bar is. Especially when you have all those 2 bar and 4 bar patterns in the music and half bars as well, as mentioned in the last section.

It is easiest to do this with slower tunes to start with so that you can easily count the beats.

The tune is usually written so that a listener will naturally clap along at the basic beat of the piece. So first, try to clap along, until you get the basic beat without worrying yet about the number of beats to the bar.

You may notice that sometimes the music skips a beat so no instruments sound when you clap. That's okay, quite normal and just keep clapping.

Then once you have got used to the basic beat of the piece, try again and this time listen and see if you can hear a pattern to the claps, with some beats emphasized. Once you do that you will probably notice that your pattern of louder or softer claps repeats. That pattern of louder and softer claps when you clap along is the bar.

One you find the bar, then just count to see how many claps you have in each bar. That gives you the top number as 4, 3, 2 (e.g. marches), or whatever.

But look out of course for the triplet feel of compound time and if you find that then instead of writing it as 2/4 use 6/8.

If you find the rhythm ambiguous, as it often is - try listening to the harmony and the melody shape. Often the harmony changes at the start of the bar. Or the melody may be phrased or rise and fall or repeat in a way that brings out the bar line.

You may get syncopation over a measure which is picked out using the harmonies or the melodic phrasing. In 4/4 the second and fourth beats might be stressed louder than the first beat. But it is done in such a way that you can still hear that the first is the bar beat. So that's another thing that may throw one at first.

You may also get accents in the middle of the bar, e.g. in 4/4 then often the middle beat is emphasized, suggesting 2/4. Or you may get the first beat of alternate bars emphasized more, suggesting 8/4 for a 4/4 song.

So, it may still be ambiguous.

Most likely time signatures

If 4 is one of the possibilities (e.g. 2, 4 or 8), then it's probably 4 beats, unless it is a march or a polka when it may be 2 beats to the bar. For some reason, tunes often fall into 4 beat patterns - if you make up a nice tune, with no thought at all to the bar, perhaps you don't even know what a bar is, you are very likely to make up a tune which falls naturally into 4/4.

For most rhythms, the bottom number is /4 by convention, it is normal to notate using quarter notes (crotchets) even for rhythms with e.g. 3 or 5 beats to the bar, unless there is some very good reason to use something else.

If it has a triplet feel to it with 6 or 9 or 12 beats to the bar then the bottom number is /8.

So it is most likely to be one of these time signatures:

2/4, 4/4, 6/8, or 9/8

with 4/4 and 6/8 the most common.

So, if you can notate it as one of those rhythms, that's probably the best thing to do unless you have some special reason for using something else.

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It's easy to use - just choose a preset rhythm and click on the dial to set the tempo - and has many special features to help with your metronome practise.

Or explore its Video Resources with many videos of various types of rhythm.

I also maintain a big list of other software and on-line metronomes, which you can find here:

A big list of some of the other metronomes available for Windows - and Online Metronomes

About the author of these pages

I'm Robert Walker, the inventor and programmer for Bounce Metronome Pro. These Many Ways to Use a Metronome pages arise out of the research I did for the program, and feedback from users of the software.

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