A quick google search will reveal common answers, such as, beat is a steady "pulse" of music, beat is the foundation of rhythm, or beat is a basic unit. However, to me these are vague answers and I can't seem to understand precisely what the beat is, how to identify, and distinguish it.

What does this pulse look like exactly,

Is a beat in music every time a new note is played, similar to, beats per minute(bpm)?

I know what meter is: its the number of beats in a measure and the beat(s) that are accented.

Therefore, if a beat actually is every occurrence of a note then why can a 4/4 meter have 8 eight notes, meaning 8 notes occur in one measure, when the meter states it is a beat of 4. So, is a beat the same as a quarter note?

Can a beat exist on its own, or is it a system of other things? Can a beat be expressed outside of a measure or meter, (like a pitch can be described without mentioning meter,tempo,etc)? Because meter cannot be described without mentioning beat or measure.

Is there more than one way to represent a beat? Meaning is it relative like tempo or absolute like bpm. One beat is the same in one piece of music as one beat in a completely different piece of music?

Please include examples using monophonic music notation and indefinite pitch, so I can isolate exactly what it looks like and understand visually. Thanks a lot this is really bugging me and I can't seem to move forward.

5 Answers 5


A lot of good introductory questions here - I can tell this is really bugging you. Not near my computer at the moment so no pictures but maybe we won’t need them. First off, we need to be clear on some definitions. I’ve paraphrased a lot of your questions from above and hopefully all will be made clear.

What is a “beat”?

This is how I explain beats to 5yr-olds, and if they get it, you should be fine. I have them put their hand on their chest and feel their heart. I tell them that their heartbeat keeps them moving. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes slow, but it’s always steady. I tell them that music also has a heartbeat: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always steady. In music, we call the heartbeat the “pulse” - it’s the thing that you feel, just like when you feel your heartbeat. (Pulse and beat are interchangeable, really, though pulse is used to describe beats in a more general, non-specific sense.) in music, we show the pulse with a symbol called a “quarter note”. Each “quarter note” represents 1 pulse. So, if I have 5 quarters, I have 5 pulses or beats. If I have 1000, then 1000.

At this point I have a metronome going and I show them the numbers - that a metronome @ 60 will make exactly 60 clicks in one minute - each click representing a beat. Then I change the numbers fast and slower so they can hear the result of the number changing. Then I play the piano, showing them that for every quarter note I see in the music, I make exactly 1 sound that lines up exactly with the metronome click. (At this point we’ve already practiced with just lining up with the metronome by tapping on our laps).

There you have it, a beat.

What is “meter”?

Meter is how we organize the beat. If we don’t have meter, it’s hard to read the music and play with other people. The most common meter is 4/4 time in which there are 4 beats per measure and the quarter note gets the beat.

What is a “measure”?

A measure is the space between bar lines. I tell my students to think of it like an empty box and the beats like blocks. If we have 4/4 time, we can only put 4 blocks in the box (if each block is worth 1). 5 blocks can’t go into 4/4 because it’s too many. However if we made the box bigger (5/4) then our blocks would fit just fine.

Why can you fit 8 notes in 4/4?

The answer here builds off the last question. You can think of it like blocks, but I prefer a pie chart for explaining 8th notes. This answer may also be helpful to you Europeans who wonder why silly Americans call the notes like we do.

First, draw a circle. This represents a whole measure in 4/4. It also represents a whole note, which is 4 beats long and is called a whole note because it takes up the whole measure.

Now divide the circle in half. These new pieces are called half notes. They are each half as big, but when you add them together, they make a whole measure. If a whole note is worth 4 beats, then a half note is worth 2.

Now divide the circle again, the other way, to yield 4 equal parts. These are called “quarters” because each one takes up one quarter of the measure. 2 quarters equal a half, and 4 a whole. Each quarter is worth 1.

Now divide each quarter. We now have 8 pieces in our pie. Since 2 8ths fit into 1 quarter, we know that each 8th must equal half of a beat. They’re called 8th-notes because 8 of them fit into a whole note.

You can keep on dividing them smaller and smaller though I don’t believe I’ve personally seen smaller than 256th notes.

Can a beat exist on its own?

Yes. You can describe how a particular rhythm divides a single pulse.

Is there more than one way to show a beat?

Yes. This is the reason for the lower number in a time signature. A beat may be represented by any note. In the case that the lower number is not 4, then all other rhythms behave proportionally to that number. For example, if the time sig is 6/8, the 8th carries the pulse. That means that a quarter note is now worth 2 beats and effectively functions like a half note. 16ths would function like 8ths as they now get half a beat each.

And yes, you can divide a whole note by any number and that number can get a beat. So if you wanted to divide by 3, you could have 3/3 time, or 4/3 or 4/5 or 7/11 time. No, it’s not irrational like many people claim. There’s nothing irrational about the numbers 3, 5, or 11. It’s just uncommon.

Is a beat the same from piece to piece?

For music that uses beats, yes, the basic concepts are the same - whether the piece is slow or fast, the meter asymmetric, or the pulse represented by an uncommon number, the core concepts I shared here today remain.

Welcome to the site, and hope this clears it up for you.

  • 1
    I've heard that 6/8 time actually has two beats per measure, with the dotted quarter note getting the beat, and each of those can be divided into three "sub-beats". Is that accurate?
    – gardenhead
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 15:59
  • @gardenhead That information is incorrect. In 6/8 time the 8th note gets the beat. Often, because of the tempo, the piece is "felt" in "two" such that the dotted quarter getting the pulse. Though it gets the pulse, the 8th note still remains the beat. This is important for notating rhythms as they divide the pulse proportionally. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 16:50
  • @DavidGarcia Also, just for good measure: You can't hear on a piece of music exactly what the time signature in the sheet music is. You can often find a pulse, but also note that a pulse that goes half as fast or twice as fast (some times three times as slow and three times as fast, like in a fast waltz) might also feels natural. There is no objective "true" pulse in this regard, although there are conventions for which pulse ought to be represented as the beats on the written sheet music.
    – Arthur
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 22:35
  • 1
    I love your description of the time signature's lower number representing that note duration which holds the beat -- somehow I've never considered that completely until now. Thanks! Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 13:26

The notion of a beat can come across as a vague concept. In mainstream music, when detected, one can tap along to it, in simple rhythm. This rhythm is put into sets, called bars or measures, so that it's a repeating pattern.

The problem comes when, say, in 4/4, there's a strong beat on 1, and a slightly weaker one on 3. 1 2 3 4.Some people would perceive the beat in that music just as 1. Others think 1, 3, while others say it's all four. In fact, in much quicker pieces, 1 will do, and in much slower ones, all four suffice.

But, generally, we tend to think in the latter mode, and this is often reflected in the bpm at the top of a piece. Usually shown with the ubiquitous crotchet as 'the beat'.

You mention 4/4 but with 8 'beats'. That can be shown as 8/8, although 4/4 is far more common, easier to write and easier to read.

Another anomaly is compound time, such as 6/8. Here, there can be found either 6 quicker 'beats' or 2 slower 'beats'. Marching music is found in 6/8, and the left/right is 1 and 4 of the quicker internal 'beats'.

So, a good question that must reflect confusion for many! I guess 'pulse' would be another term used, but not all listeners would agree where that pulse lay in a particular piece, as illustrated previously. Writers need to establish what they think of as a 'beat', in order to write the dots properly, and state a bpm.

It certainly isn't a new beat for every new note played, as you considered, as sometimes, 'beats' aren't even heard. When there are rests, the beat still goes on, so to speak, but nothing can be heard to indicate this, only one's internal rhythm clock, which has, by then, locked onto the tempo and feel, and keeps ticking away until the next sound is heard - which may or may not actually be on another 'beat'. Syncopation rears its head at this point, but I don't want to go there yet...

  • To clarify, you are stating that a beat is the type or pattern of strong/weak emphasis on notes. So a beat basically describes the subtle dynamics of how loud notes are played in a pattern? Is it then plausible to have music with no beat? Meaning all notes are played EXACTLY at the same loudness, no emphasis. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 11:50
  • No. A beat cannot be a type or pattern. A beat is a part of that pattern. Usually, a pattern of beats - known as a rhythm - will have emphasised and unemphasised notes/beats in it. It's possible to have music with no 'beat' - everything the same volume/stress - but it's pretty tedious, and wouldn't reveal what the time sig could be. We wouldn't want to listen to that for ling...
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:01
  • Okay I think I understand now, a single beat is based on the characteristic of either being strong/weak. Put several beats together to form a pattern, described by the time signature. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:04
  • Basically. Once a pattern has been established, then it can be sub-divided into beats, helped by studying how one's foot is tapping, in some cases. However, beats must all be regular and identical. A beat is not necessarily a note, although a note could be a beat long.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:07

The beat is not physically present in the musical sounds. Instead the system of beats is something that is imposed onto the sound by a human mind when listening to, playing, or notating the music.

I don't believe there is any universal precise definition of it, but it's generally the period and phase of the most prominent repeating structure in the sound, where the duration is short enough to be perceivable all at once, while long enough that the adjacent beats can be distinguished, so generally in the range between tens and hundreds of bpm.

Since prominence is a perceptual term two listeners could potentially perceive a different beat in the same sound.

Note durations are defined relative to the beat, so in order to notate music it's necessary to decide what the beat duration is. If a different listener perceived a different beat then they could use different note values to indicate the same note duration.


You are right in saying a 'beat' is the steady pulse that underlies the music. The notes exist within this framework. One note may be several beats long. Or several notes may fit into one beat. Or it can get complex...

I'm afraid there is no one type of note that always lasts one 'beat'. Music notation is more complex than that.

  • So if i listen to a single measure of music that has a meter of 4/4, and I only hear 3 notes played (quarter note, half note, then quarter note) how would I identify the beat just by listening and transfer it as notation? Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:00
  • You might only hear 1, 2 and 4, but you can feel 3. You feel it in the middle of the long two. One... Two, -Ooo, Four!
    – Beanluc
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 21:26

Considered as a certain duration of time, the beat - or regular pulse-rate and overarching pace - of a musical passage is not necessarily identical with the durations of its individual, successively heard sounds. Rather, the duration of its beat corresponds to the perceived lowest common denominator interval of time that the brain can infer from comparing its constituent sounds' different durations, OR - should all of its constituent sounds be equal in duration - the highest common factor interval of time that is perceived as exhibiting some kind of recurring temporal regularity (for example, a regular descending sequence formed of a set number of equal-duration sounds). The brain is equally capbable of inferring the beat by either manner of computation - and, indeed, of deploying them in combination.

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