Music Teacher's Helper Blog

The Start of Something Special…or is it?

When you play music, how do you think about the beat?  Musicians often think of the beat note as the beginning of something, probably because of written music.  After all, the beat note begins every measure, and beamed notes usually connect the beat note with those that follow.

But is that how we hear it?  Is that how we play it?  Maybe most revealing, is that how we sing it?  Not really.  But I suspect that whichever way we think about this can make a big difference in how we play, practice, and teach music. 

Think of the sentence, “The cat climbed up to the top of the tree.”  If you wrote the rhythm of this sentence in music, it would look like this:

             cat rhythmThe beat note is the one that ends each group of words:  “The cat”, “climbed up”, “to the top”, “of the tree.”  The beat is always last.  But interestingly, in order to make clear where the beats are, the written music connects the beat notes with the notes that follow the beat, so the beat note always seems first in the group.

If we play the way we sing, or the way we talk, we will play into the beat note, then lead into the next beat, then into the next, like ocean waves cresting on the beat, and then immediately leading up to the next crest.

This is how music leads us on, whether as players or listeners, from beat to beat, from phrase to phrase.  In fiddling, it is how a long sequence of eighth notes comes alive, and develops a danceable pulse.  It is no different in classical music when well played, though too much focus on the mathematical correctness of playing what’s written can obscure the flow leading into the beats, and deaden the pulse.

When we think of the rise into the crest of the beat, we think the same way a conductor lifts the baton in order to convey the beat.  We don’t just tap our foot on a beat; we lift it in anticipation, and let it drop because we feel the beat coming.  We think like the African drummers who pay close attention to how they lift their hands high in anticipation of the beat of the drum.  We let the music breathe.

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Thanks to Sam for interesting comments on the 7 Musings on Musical Discipline article.  (Sam has a cool blog of his own, by the way.)  Your comments are always welcome–just type in your two bits in the boxes below and join the discussion!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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