In addition to the horizontal ingredient of pitch, which is made up of high and low frequencies, there is also a vertical ingredient that corresponds with passing time. Just as a calendar organizes our days into a sequential structure, and a clock marks the passing of hours and minutes, music also has an organization of time ingredients called rhythm.
In centuries past, there was a time when music was created without any sort of systematic organized structure. The chants of monks in the tenth century, for instance, were lines of organized frequencies that had no pattern, no structure, no consistent strong pulse to them. Beautiful as they were, you couldn’t dance to them. But then again, that wasn’t their purpose.
Somewhere in the early sixteenth century, music started to be organized into regular and predictable patterns of strong beats and weak beats. These patterns began with strong beats, just like the hour begins with the chime of a clock, or the day begins with a sunrise. This measuring point, the strong beat, was the cornerstone for the whole concept of organized rhythm in music. So musicians counted from one strong beat to another. The beginning of a new series was marked by a vertical bar line, after which, the first note of the next series was the one beat or the downbeat.
It’s understandable that music was counted by the number of patterns or “measures,” or by the number of vertical dividers or “bars.” When musicians talk about the passing of time in the music, they use the terms “measures” or “bars” just as we would talk about the passing of time with the terms “days” or “hours.” Eight or sixteen or thirty-two measures into a piece of music was a convenient way of locating a specific spot.
Within each measure, then, the number of beats was most often consistent. If the beginning of the music said there were 4 of them, then every measure, unless noted otherwise, had the exact length of four beats. If the beginning said there were 3 beats per measure or 6 beats per measure, then the musicians could count the beats as they went by: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
In each case, the strong beats were at the beginning of the measure 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
If there were 4 beats per measure, the 1 beat was strongest, with the 3 being almost as strong: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.
This strong and weak pattern is important not only for the organizing of the music, but it is also what the body of the listener connects with when listening to music. When someone is listening to music and begins tapping their toes or swaying their body or dancing “in time” with the music, what they are really doing is synchronizing their movement to the [ 1-2-3, 1-2-3] or [1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4] that is happening in a predictable pattern with strong and weak beats in the measure of music.
Within each measure of music, the note values, or how long the note lasts, might differ, but the total value at the end of the measure was always the same.
As we will see in the next elements, the simple strong/weak beat pattern, together with varying note values within the measure become much more complex when you add a drummer to the music.