We Got the Beat!
Let’s get super practical! Music is the combination of tones, frequencies, chords, and progressions played together over a set amount of time. That set amount of time is called the “beat”. As we unpack the Nashville Numbers System, it will simply not make any sense without a basic understanding of musical beat.
The vast majority of contemporary western music uses 4 beats in each measure. Simply put, that means that the basic musical phrase or feel repeats itself every 4 beats. For these songs, you could physically count, “one, two, three, four” along with the beat and you would likely hear chord changes on the “one”. Again, this is by far the most commonly used time signature in contemporary western music, but it is certainly not the only one. This time signature is called “4/4” because there are four beats for each measure.
A classic example of a song written in 4/4 is “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” If you were to count it out, the measure would start over again on hark, angels, glory, and newborn. Those words sit on the first beat of each measure, or the “one beat.”
Some songs have three beats to a measure, which would mean that you count them as, “one, two, three”, and then start a new measure. This time signature is called “3/4” because there are three beats for each measure. A classic example of a song written in 3/4 is “The First Noel.” If you were to count it out, the measure would start over again on first, el, angels, and say. (Take into consideration that the song actually starts on a pickup beat before that first measure that we counted, and that the el is the second syllable of the word Noel.)
Contemporary western music will also use 2/4 and 6/8 sometimes (as well as many other rarely used time signatures). If the song works better to count two beats to a measure (instead of 4/4), or six beats to a measure (instead of 3/4), then the song is actually written in 2/4 or 6/8, respectively.
Using the most common time signature, which is overwhelmingly 4/4, let’s look at the most common ways to fill the measure.
If you are counting “one, two, three, four” for the beats of a 4/4 song, then you are counting quarter notes. A quarter note is a note that is played for one quarter of a 4/4 measure, or one beat. (It is important to point out that the quarter note is still just one beat in any other time signature even though that would technically be half of a 2/4 measure.)
A half note, then, is half of the 4/4 measure, or two beats. A whole note would be held out for the duration of the entire measure, or four beats.
Going in the other direction, notes could actually occupy less than one beat. An eighth note is half of a beat. To count eighth notes, you would count the measure as, “one and two and three and four”. Each word would represent an eighth note.
Though there is much more that could be said about this and many ways to fill (and go beyond) a measure, for our purposes we should acknowledge the sixteenth note, which is a quarter of a beat. You could fit four sixteenth notes into a single beat, and sixteen sixteenth notes into a single measure, and you would count that measure as, “one e and ah, two e and ah, three e and ah, four e and ah”. Again, each word (or something like a word) would represent a sixteenth note.
Those are the basics of the musical beat! Once you’ve got the beat, you want to know how quickly those beats are moving. The tempo of a song is determined by “Beats Per Minute”, or “BPM”. Once you have your time signature and tempo, you are ready to talk about the key.
* This #ThursdayWorshipThought article is part 2 (of 5) of a larger series, “Music Theory March”. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series, as well! For a printable version of this article, click here.
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).