Finding the Beat

Now we’re going to start connecting your natural physical response to music with the system and terminology of “time signatures.” This system was developed alongside European “classical” music and largely adopted (and occasionally adapted) by American “popular” music (broadly defined). We use this framework not because these perspectives are universal, but because they are useful when you are surrounded by these cultures.

As we work to connect your bodily motion to time signatures, let’s start with the idea of a “beat.” This term has been defined in many different ways, but for us, it simply means the way you tend to move most naturally, in relatively consistent and repeating ways, to a piece of music upon first listening to it.

Often, the majority of listeners will agree on a beat; other times, there may be two or even more possibilities. Studies suggest that we tend to gravitate to the range between 80–120 beats per minute (BPM); typically, if people disagree about the beat, it’s because there is no single way to move consistently to the music within that range. (That said, the majority of these studies were conducted on members of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—that is, WEIRD—populations, so this isn’t necessarily universal.)

We’ll continue to use bodily motion as we determine the beat. Bodily motions that tend to be particularly helpful in “entraining” to beats in the typical range include arm waves, head nods, and toe taps.

Most often, every beat in a song lasts about the same length of time (unless there is a tempo change). However, there is also a significant amount of music where beats alternate in some pattern between different lengths, often with “long” and “short” beats in a length ratio of 3:2. These are sometimes called “isochronous” (same beat length) vs. “non-isochronous” or “mixed” (different beat lengths) meters. Because mixed meters present additional challenges and are less common, we will include some examples in this chapter but leave detailed instruction for later study.

Unless the beat is purposefully obscured, finding it often feels relatively natural. If it doesn’t, make sure you’re moving your body! But if you’re still not consistently finding a beat—or not finding the same beat as the majority of those around you (or your instructor)—it’s a good idea to work with someone one-on-one.

Activity: Find the Beat!

Goal:  Use physical motion to entrain to (align our attention and motions with) a beat.

Instructions: For each of the songs below, find the beat. You are encouraged to do this with your body in some way. Head nods, foot taps, and hand taps are often particularly helpful in drawing your attention to the layer typically called the “beat.” If you find yourself continuously drawn to different lengths of time (“rhythm” rather than “meter”), however, you might try whole-body sways, which are more likely to stay at the same speed. Optionally, use a metronome or metronome app’s “tap” function to determine the song’s tempo (beats per minute).


Suggest a song for this playlist!

Activity: Isochronous and Non-isochronous Beats

Goal: Use physical motion to entrain to (align our attention and motions with) a beat, then determine whether beat lengths are roughly the same most of the time (isochronous) or whether they change lengths (mixed/non-isochronous).


  1. For each of the songs below, find the beat. Again, you are encouraged to do this with your body.
  2. Once you have found the beat, determine whether the beats are generally the same length throughout the piece (isochronous) or whether they change lengths (mixed/non-isochronous).
  3. If the beats change lengths, figure out how you would describe the repeating pattern of longer and shorter beats. For example, you might describe one as “long, short, short, long, short, short, long, short, short,” etc.

Activity: Working with Ambiguous or Difficult Beats

Goal: Gain skill in working with songs with multiple different possible beat layers or ambiguous beats.

Instructions: Each of the songs in the following playlist fits one of two descriptions:

  1. The song may have multiple different possible interpretations. In most cases, this means two possible speeds you could move to it within our typical 80–120 beats per minute range. However, sometimes there are two competing interpretations of the beat.
  2. Or the song’s beat may be heavily obscured by syncopation and complexity.

In each case, use your physical motions and your intuitions to figure out how you would move to, and describe, the beat. You will likely find others who disagree with you, and you may both be right: discuss your different interpretations.


Suggest a song for this playlist!




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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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