One of the most difficult concepts in music to explain in words is that of the beat. Numerous scientific studies and philosophical theories attempt to describe this fundamental element of musical time, yet like trying to describe the color red to someone who has been blind since birth, the description is always lacking. With the onset of major technological innovations in computers, software can now analyze recorded music and through enormously complex mathematical formulae and tremendous processing power calculate the approximate beats per minute of a section of music. Yet even the most powerful supercomputer running the most advanced beat detection algorithms are no match for even an untrained nonmusician in detecting the beat of the music. It is a natural and innate human ability, and anyone who has tapped their foot, snapped their fingers, or clapped their hands in time with music already understands the concept of a musical beat better than any written description could provide. That is why you will usually hear expressions like “feeling the beat,” or “feeling the groove” when referring to the pulse of the music. It is a feeling more than an intellectual mathematical analysis.
Many believe that ability to perceive the beat of the music is present at birth. The first sound humans usually hear is the heartbeat of their mother while they are still in the womb. Perhaps this regular repeating pulse of sound present in the womb somehow conditions your brain to naturally recognize the timing pulses in music.
Beats, Rhythm, and Tempo
It is important to understand the different terms related to the time component of music. Often the words to describe the time aspects of music are used interchangeably (and incorrectly), but they are distinct and it is helpful when learning to differentiate between them. Following are a few definitions:
Beat – The fundamental unit of time that can be further divided into sub-beats to create a regular and repeated musical pulse.
Rhythm – The arrangement and relative duration of musical notes over time. It is not speed dependent: You can play the same rhythm (arrangement of notes) slow or fast.
Tempo – The speed of the beat, usually expressed in BPM (beats per minute).