Good King Wenceslas

Session 6: Beat and Rhythm

Walking the beat

Imagine you’re walking down the street keeping a steady pace. Your shoes make a faint slapping noise as they land, or maybe a clicking, crunching or tapping noise depending on what the soles (and the pavement or road) are made of.

Left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right…
An even, regular slap (or click, or crunch, or tap).

You’re feeling good. The sun is shining, there’s a warm, gentle breeze… you’re having a good day.

For some reason a song remembered from your childhood comes into your mind and you start singing quietly to yourself as you walk along.

“London Bridge is falling down
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down
My fair lady.”

All the time your feet just carry on with their even steps, and your singing keeps in time with them.

There is no effort needed to do this. It just happens all by itself, the melody and the footsteps in perfect time with each other. Of course the footsteps themselves aren’t part of the tune, but the tune fits itself around the footsteps. Why? Because it has a beat. Most music does. Whenever you find yourself tapping your foot to a tune, or clapping along to it, or dancing, or just bobbing your head up and down you are moving with the beat, the underlying pulse.

Some music is written especially to exploit this feature – marches for example. If you’ve ever seen a band marching to a piece of music you’ll have seen how their footsteps mark the beat of the music. And in case you haven’t seen a band marching take a look at this clip to see what I mean.

The music has a clear and steady beat, and the musicians are marching in strict time to it. You may also be able to hear the sound of the big bass drum which is being struck on each beat.

Ever heard someone count in a group of musicians (in other words calling out “one, two, three, four” before they start)? That’s not just a fancy way of saying “ready, steady, go”. The count is in time with the beat, so it lets the musicians know how fast the music will be and where the beats fall.

Rhythm

Some people confuse the words “rhythm” and “beat”. They are not the same thing – though sometimes they might seem to be. For example, imagine you’re singing the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas as we walk down that street again. (Not so warm and sunny now – Christmas is coming…)

Good King Wenceslas

Pretty straightforward – every syllable falls on a beat. But the word “out” lasts not just one beat but two. And look at the word “Stephen” – both syllables  also have two beats each.

Let’s go back to the nursery rhyme we started with.

London Bridge is falling down

This is a different picture. Now the tune means that some beats have two syllables, some have one, and the last word is stretched across two beats.

The beat remains steady, and the notes of the tune are set in relation to it. The way the notes are arranged against the steady beat is called the rhythm of the music. There may be one note to a beat, two notes to a beat, three notes, four notes etc. Or a note might last for one beat, for two beats, for three beats etc. And even the simplest music is made up of a combination of these different note lengths, as we can see in London Bridge is Falling Down. That’s one of the main ways of making it interesting.

You only have to walk down the street singing London Bridge in time to your footsteps to understand the difference between rhythm and beat. In fact I strongly recommend that you try it.

You can picture the beat as the steady footstep of a parent, while the rhythm is like the running skipping and jumping of a young child walking alongside. Or imagine that the marching band in the video had a group of dancers moving along with it – the foosteps of the band are the beat – steady, regular – while the footsteps of the dancers are like the rhythm of a melody.

Try this

Try singing another nursery rhyme while you’re walking – Yankee Doodle.

Then download this worksheet and, above the correct syllables, mark in where the beats (i.e. your footsteps) fall.  Here’s how:

It’s traditional in marching bands to lead off with the left foot. So the first beat is marked by the left foot, the second by the right etc. That’s why you sometimes hear the band leader shout out “Left, Right, Left, Right”, not “Right, Left, Right, Left” (you can hear this in the marching video above, around 1:20).

So, write an “L” to show where the first beat falls, an “R” above the second beat, “L” above the third beat, and “R” above the fourth and so on. To make it clearer the first four beats have already been filled in.

When you’re done you can check your work here

Get a FREE sheet of quick reference notes summarising this session.


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