Thursday, February 24, 2011

Matrix Theory - What is a Beat?

Play by ear fans, could there be any more of an obvious question than this?  I hear some groaning  “We’re not in kindergarten anymore, ya know.  A beat’s a beat, alright?”  Okay, you may be on top of this but right now we can't assume anything.  Let's delve into your full understanding and clarify a few things.  The conversation usually follows this line of reasoning:

Me:     “How long does a beat last?”
You:   “It varies in speed.  It depends . . .”

Me:     “Depends on what?”
You:   “How fast the song is.”

Me:     “How do you know how fast the song is?” 
You:   “I know the song.  I’ve got the record.”

Me:     “What if you didn’t know it?  How would you know
             how fast to play it?”
You:   “I suppose I’d guess.”

Me:     “Based on what?”
You:   “I don’t know . . . maybe the size of the beat note?”

Me:    “Let’s explore that.  Comparatively, if the beat note is represented by
            a half, quarter or eight note (2/2, 4/4 or 6/8), which beat-note
            will be the fastest?

You:   “The eighth note in 6/8.”

Me:     “That’s a good guess.  Why do you say that?”
You:   “It’s a smaller note and just looks faster.”

Me:     “Okay, so, what’s a beat?”
You:   “I’m not sure I really know.”

Matrix Theory

See how this non-clarified 101 concept is the cause of so much uncertainty?  You cannot allow simple questions like this to go unchallenged.  In no uncertain terms, you must understand what a beat is.  But just try to get a straight answer somewhere.  Here it is. 

There are 3 things you must know:

The Fact:           

Regardless of the size of a beat note (2/2, 4/4 or 6/8) in our example above, they are all the same in duration.  No one beat note is faster than the other.  In this way, a beat is a beat.  All beats are equal in time and space.

How Fast Is It? 

A beat is a reasonable time frame that pulses evenly.  1/8th of a second is not a reasonable pulse nor is a 5-second delay. “Reasonable,” as a benchmark of speed, is about 1 second.  Forget about the note size or the time signature.  A beat, as a concept, stands alone at approximately 1 second.

The Impression: 

Your perception that the 8th note is to be played the fastest is not all wrong.  You unwittingly may be picking up on something that’s not so obvious.  A composer that uses a lot of 8th and 16th notes in a song may be visually inferring to you that the song is to be played faster.  With every piece of music you look at, the composer relays a subtle message regarding implied speed.  Some do it better than others.


•  A song is written in 2/2 with a lot of half notes. 
        Does this look fast or slow?  Slow. 

•  A song is written in 6/8 and is black with 8th and 16th notes. 
        Does it look fast or slow?  Fast.

So when you consider what a beat is, you must temper your understanding between the fact that all beats are the same and your impression of speed that is being inferred by the composer.  Between those two things you will find the optimum pulse on either side of 1 second.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

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