Welcome back to Wired Theory! I decided to break the fundamentals up into a few smaller articles just to have the opportunity to really explain  it all and apply these concepts, just so it doesn’t seem like a list of terms for a high school quiz.

Again, since the fundamentals do not really contain any tangible or practicable information, you just have to understand what these terms are and how they work with music as a whole.

In our previous installment we discussed notes and rhythms, and what they are on a piece of music. Today, I want to discuss how we interpret these notes and rhythms.


Beats and Tempo

So you’re jamming the newest Issues or Periphery and you start moving your head back and forth “in time” to the music. Something makes it impossible to just stand still, but rather you want to head bang or clap your hands in someway.

But what exactly are you relating that motion to?

Chances are, you’re defining the tempo and beat of the song.

A beat is simply the main accent or rhythmic unit in music. It’s a pulse. Think of a doctor’s visit, and they measure your heart beat. They might tell you, “your heart is beating at 60 beats per minute”.

That means that your heart pulses 1 time every second, since a minute is made up of 60 equal parts, or seconds. 

Music is the same exact way, in the matter of having an equal number of pulses in a section of music. If you look at music for “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, it gives a tempo of 120 bpm, or beats per minute, meaning in each minute of music there are 2 beats per second.

Tempo is the word we used to tell how fast or slow a passage of music should be played, or the speed of the passage. We often associate slower tempos with more emotional passages and faster tempos with more aggression and power.

With “Don’t Stop Believing”, the tempo of 120bpm might seem moderate, where its not too slow that you can still dance along but not fast enough where you’re moshing and going crazy. We associate a passionate and driving emotion with the song. Very empowering and nostalgic.

Where as a song like “Angel of Death” by Slayer, which clocks in at 202bpm, we tend to associate with raw power and aggression. Total moshing and anger (in a good way).

When we listen to genres that often change the speed at which they are played, such as classical or progressive, it can often affect how we “feel” the music.

Take Dream Theater’s “Change of Seasons” for instance, where the 5-part story goes through several time signature and tempo changes. This conveys a plethora of different rhythms and emotions throughout the piece, like a movie.


Music is written into measures, or single sections of music.  Dividing music into bars provides regular reference points to pinpoint locations within a piece of music. It also makes written music easier to follow, since each bar of staff symbols can be read and played as a batch.

The measure can be divided into two, three, or four parts. The names for the division of the measure are: duple (tw0), triple (three), and quadruple (four). The first beat in a group is called the downbeat, and is usually the strongest.

Time Signature

Now we can apply the beat to music. In doing so, we look at the time signature.

The time signature specifies how many beats (pulses) are in each measure and which duration is to be given one beat.

There are two parts to any time signature; the top number, and the bottom number:

-The top number tells you “how many”

-The bottom number tells you “of what” 

The top number indicates how many notes there will be per measure and the bottom number indicates what kind of note the top number is referring to.

4/4, for example, has four quarter note beats per measure.

12/8, for example, would have twelve eighth note beats per measure.

Of course, you can substitute for bigger or smaller note values. Since we know that a whole note equals two half notes, which equals four quarter notes etc. you can use any subdivision of rhythms you’d like as long as you have the necessary space.

You’ll encounter the two following main types of time signatures:


-Beat can be broken down into two-part rhythms

-Top number can be divided by 1 and 2, creating a one-two pulse

-Represented in quarter notes

Ex: 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 3/8, and 2/2.


-Beat can broken down into three-part rhythms

-Top number is evenly divisible by 3, creating a one-two-three pulse

-Represented in dotted quarter notes

Ex: 6/8, 12/8, and 9/4.

The simplest way to hear the difference between simple and compound meter is to listen to “America” from West Side Story. 

Observe the difference in accents, they should feel different.

America Song

                    I         Want    To       Be      In        A        –    Mer    –      I       –      Ca


Notice how the 6/8 measure has two sets of 3 eighth notes?

-3 eighth notes make a dotted quarter note, proving it’s a compound meter.

Notice how the ¾ measure has three sets of 1 quarter notes?

-1 quarter note equals a quarter note, proving it’s a simple meter.

In Closing

Learning and understanding meter is the root of all music. It creates the groove of the song, and is the backbone of a composition.

I encourage you this week to look at a piece of sheet music from songsterr.com, where you can find the pro tabs for most songs in both notation and tab. See how the rhythms and time signatures work together.

In the next installment, we will look into special rhythms, syncopation and more to wrap up the fundamentals.

Always feel free to reach out and contact me with any all questions you might have. Until next time, keep reading and rocking!

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This article written by community content contributor Zack Seif. Zack is a classically trained professional musician, currently at the helm of his solo project, Regression.

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