Musical Subject: Beat

I enjoy working with the subject of ‘beat’. The phenomenon itself is so fundamental it can be a challenge to define it. It’s like asking, “What is air?” We can all produce a quasi-scientific definition of the air we breathe, but our experience of it could not be more fundamental to our existence. Yet it is very difficult to capture this experience with words. It is the same thing with ‘beat’.

The definition of the word itself is slippery. Older children or adults more oriented to popular music are likely to associate the word with drum patterns. Classical musicians who primarily learn music through notation tend to associate the word ‘beat’ with groupings of beats, i.e. time signature or meter. Jazz musicians relate the concept of beat to a player’s sense of “time”: one’s personal style might be associated with being “ahead of the beat” or “behind the beat”.

Like many fundamental motor experiences, people can’t really be taught to feel a beat in music any more than they can be taught to walk, ride a bike or skip. We can “teach” by setting up the right conditions for it to happen naturally, but I do think the we have to say “teach” in this case. With the Dalcroze approach, based on teaching through direct experience, I feel comfortable removing the scare quotes from the word.

When I begin to plan a lesson related to this subject, I ask myself, “What are some things musicians need to be able to do with a beat?” The list is long and varied, but it might include things like:

  • Maintain a steady tempo
  • Change the speed (slowly, suddenly, just a little bit, a lot…)
  • Change the quality (light, heavy, in between…)
  • Feel it when it is not being overtly expressed
  • Recognize when there is no beat (recitative, for example)
  • Follow a conductor
  • Lead an ensemble
  • Return to an original or previous tempo

This is just a start, but even with this list I can begin to imagine what we can do together to immerse students of any age and background into direct experience. For young children, I will look for ways to elicit the target behavior (e.g. speeding up, slowing down, returning to an original tempo) and let the music follow them. Images and stories are very helpful. The cat prowls, slows down, stops to pounce, etc. Older children can be asked to synchronize their movement to the music they hear. I aim to give them more responsibility, though. Once they are moving at my tempo, I’ll gradually give them more space, forcing them to take charge in maintaining the tempo. Students of all ages can lead an ensemble or partner (or even myself at the piano) in tempo changes of all kinds, as well as fermatas and ceasuras. The possibilities are endless, which can make choosing specific activities for a lesson overwhelming. (It’s the same problem you might have with an empty plate at a buffet.) I try to remind myself that these are foundational skills that will be revisited time and again under the auspices of many other related musical subjects: divisions of the beat, dynamics, tempo, meter and all the rest.

This is an example of a playlist I have to explore this subject with students of all ages. In some selections the beat is very strong and clear, in others almost totally obscured (but still present).

What would you put on your ‘beat’ playlist?







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