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So much contemporary/pop music is tied to the rock-n-roll standard 4/4 back-beat rhythm, why is this?

Contemporary rock music (amongst other styles) loves a bit of dissonance, angular melody lines, distortion, and generally to dirty things up, but it still hangs on tightly to the 4/4 back-beat. Of punk this seems especially true and especially surprising.

Is there something psychological or physiological which makes this rhythmic pattern so compelling?

Is it simply cultural dominance, a sort of familiar comfort?

Why is unusual harmony 'interesting' whist unusual rhythm so hard to deal with?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

We have two legs, and so we tend to like rhythms which 'go into' two. We also tend to like tempos which match things we can do with our legs -- slower than a stroll hardly feels like a rhythm, faster than a sprint and we mentally recalibrate to half-tempo.

By the same token, there are lots of actions like scrubbing or sawing that are naturally fall into twos - back and forth.

I don't think it's right to point specifically at 'contemporary' music. Folk music and classical music are primarily in two-legged rhythms. 4/4 is the most common time signature, followed by 2/4.

At first glance, waltzes would appear to disprove my argument. But bars of 3/4 tend to come in pairs (One two three, Two two three.) so we're back to that walking rhythm. There are plenty of 'contemporary' songs in 3/4.

12/8 is more or less equivalent to 4/4 with triplets. 6/8 is more or less equivalent to 3/4. And so on.

The time signatures that don't fit into this are prime numbers higher than 3 - 5/4, 7/8. But these are rare in classical music, possibly more so than in contemporary art-rock, prog-rock and jazz.

Why is 4/4 more popular than 2/4? I'm not sure. Maybe that tiny bit of variety when scrubbing or sawing or marching or dancing is welcome.

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That's a really nice answer. It would also tie in nicely with the work place or chain gang song, and of course running or rowing type activities to motivating music. –  gingerbreadboy Dec 28 '12 at 21:41
    
By the way, exotic time signatures are extremely common in classical music of the past 100-or-so years. –  nonpop Dec 28 '12 at 22:12
    
@nonpop depends what you mean by "extremely common". I think the popular favourites still tend to be 3/4 and 4/4 - for example I went to see Prokofiev's 1944 Cinderella the other week, which is (almost?) all straightforward time sigs. –  slim Dec 31 '12 at 11:31
    
That's possible, and it might even be that their popularity is partly due to simple meters, as it's often easier to listen. But there are also popular (or at least famous) composers, like Messiaen or Ligeti, who often don't even bother to write time signatures as pretty much every measure (when they exist) has a different, often complex, one. –  nonpop Dec 31 '12 at 12:18

A strong, steady pulse makes a kind of very stable skeleton for the music. If it's there, you can do other things without completely breaking the style or making the piece incoherent. Compare it to this:

  • Play a strong, continuous low note. You can play almost anything on top of it and the music still seems to be "calm" and rooted in a way.
  • Play a strong, continuous high note. Almost every low note you play will feel like it takes the music to a new place. The root is missing.

Pulse and other stuff have a similar relationship. It's easier to break the other stuff without making the piece sound "wrong" or "not in style".

As for why 4/4, slim gave some possible reasons. I also think it's (pop-)cultural. Personally I find for example some places in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring much more rhythmically compelling than any rock piece I've ever heard. And those places have nothing to do with 4/4, and even less to do with steadiness.

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most answers are good, but adding a possible answer to the 4/4: A riff or beat (often) is around 4 or 8 beats, and therefore it is much easier to count out a rhythm with one or two measures of 4/4 instead of 2 or 4 measures of 2/4 (considering I have never seen 8/4 used before)

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No reason you can't use 8/4, but 4/4 and 2/4 are normally different beats. Besides that I don't see why 2/4 would be "harder to count". –  Matthew Read Jan 7 '13 at 15:48

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