I'm looking to understand how to identify beats. As I understand it, there should be four beats per measure in this hymn, as established by the time signature which says four half notes.

In the first measure of the topmost staff I see four beats. However measure two has three beats, measure three has four beats, and measure four has three beats.

Does the whole notes count as one beat or two beats?

Hymn with the time signature 4/2: "O Jehovah, Hear My Words"

Source: Hymnary.org, Trinity Hymnal (Rev. ed.), p. 52 — Hymn #51

  • Yes, one whole note is the same as two half notes. Also one whole note is the same as four quarter notes. Commented Feb 8 at 15:43
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    A very interesting question is why this uses 4/2 rather than using 4/4 and printing every note as half of these values. Often we see this in renaissance or early baroque literature, because of the evolution of "white note/black note" rhythmic notation, but Aberystwyth was written in 1876. It might be that it's felt to be easier to read than using eighth notes, or that it subconsciously encourages a more stately tempo? Commented Feb 8 at 15:44
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    @AndyBonner, hymn books have been written in this style well into the 20th century. Most likely the author was just following this pattern.
    – Peter
    Commented Feb 9 at 5:39
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    You seem to be confusing note count and duration with beats. While we can use these element to identify the meter (and, thus, the "beat count") of a piece when listening to it, each note is not automatically a beat, but, instead, can be in correspondence of one beat. The second bar, just like all the others, has 4 beats, no matter "how many notes" you see in it, and the simple demonstration is that if the second bar was completely silent (a "full rest"), it would still have had 4 beats, no matter if nobody was playing or singing during that period of time. Commented Feb 9 at 11:01
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    You can imagine a bar as a full unity of time, and beats as how you would subdivide that long time in smaller, easily measurable units (for instance, minutes). You don't measure time based on how many things you do, but eventually in how long it takes to do each of these things. One hour is still one hour, no matter if in that hour you do 4 things that take 15 minutes each, or 3 things with two taking 15 minutes and the third taking 30. If in that hour you do absolutely nothing, it would still be one hour. Interestingly enough, in our lives we often use the concept of quarters of hours. Commented Feb 9 at 11:07

2 Answers 2


Apparently, there are four beats in every single measure of this hymn, as established by the time signature of four half notes.

The number of beats in each measure does not vary. The number of notes contained in each measure may vary. Although measure number one has six notes, there are still four beats in the measure. Measure number two has three notes, there are four beats in this measure also. Measure number four has four notes, however the two quarter notes are assigned to beat number one of this measure, the half note is assigned to beat two, and the whole note really spans the space of beats three and beat four.

It is possible for a single note to span the room of two beats, one note can be in two beats at once.

So what occurs is really not that we are manipulating beats in any way, beats aren't divided or subdivided. It is rather the notes that are distributed to sort of "fill out the space" of each beat, as it were.

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    "beats aren't divided or subdivided": the common term for something that lasts for half a beat (or a third, a quarter, etc.) is "subdivision." In many ways it's analogous to any other system of measurement. A liter may be subdivided into ten deciliters, 100 centiliters, or 1000 milliliters. A semibreve may be subdivided into two minims or four crotchets (among other possibilities). If your tempo is minim=60, you can just as well set your metronome to 120 and use that for the duration of a crotchet. What you are describing is rhythm as opposed to meter.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 9 at 10:23
  • This is a good foundation for understanding. I sometimes use the analogy that the "beat" is like graph paper; you can draw shapes that take up multiple squares or even shapes smaller than a square that have to add up to fill one. Also: the beat is an idea that underlies the musical reality. Music is made of notes, and the lengths of these notes fit into an underlying, "imaginary" grid. Commented Feb 9 at 16:55

The 4 numerator tells how many, the lower 2 tells what each one is, very much like a fraction here. So, there are 4 minims (half notes) per bar. It could have just as easily be written out as 4/4, with every note halved in value, making the crotchets in bar 1, for example, quavers. Probably written this way to emphasise it's a slow piece.

So, a 'beat' is in a way a count of two - a minim. And bar 4 is fine - there's 2 crotchets, 1 minim, and a semibreve, which all add up to the prescribed 4 x 2 beat duration notes

  • Thank you for that Tim. Therefore the semibreve is one single beat, is that correct? Commented Feb 8 at 15:30
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    No, I said the minim is the beat. Semibreve is half the bar, at 2 beats.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 8 at 15:32
  • As for the two crotchets connected with the "slur" symbol. Two crotchets connected in this manner do make one beat correct? Thank you again. Commented Feb 8 at 15:37
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    @AndyBonner - thanks for that. Even a dotted 1/2 note could take up a whole bar. So I wonder (as always) whether the 'fraction' nomenclature really is the way forward. For now, I'll stick to the archaic phraseology - which has worked over here for quite a few years!
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 8 at 15:53
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    @RafaelXVillalobos "As for the two crotchets connected with the "slur" symbol. Two crotchets connected in this manner do make one beat correct?": Two crotchets in succession take the duration of one minim regardless of the presence or absence of a slur symbol. The slur symbol in this instance tells you that both of the crotchets belong to the same syllable. If the words were "O mighty Jehovah" with one syllable per note, there would be no slurs, but the rhythm would not change and the measure would still have 4 beats.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 9 at 10:28

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