Readers reply: is there a human predisposition to a 4/4 beat in music? | Music

Is there a human predisposition to a 4/4 beat in music? And if so why? Or does 4/4 just feel more natural to me because I grew up with pop/rock as the standard music form? Michael Cameron-Mowat

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Readers reply

Limit ourselves to only Europe, and from Irish jigs to mazurkas or waltzes or a flamenco compas or a Transylvanian învârtita to the Macedonian eleno mome, the question a Martian might ask is: “Why is hardly any Earth music in 4/4?” BrendasIronSledge

Anyone who listens to prog knows that if it ain’t in 13/8 (or would that be alternating bars of 3/4 and 7/8?) then it ain’t music. John Watson

I think it is cultural, rather than inherent. Go back to the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe when the influence of the Christian church was very strong and much music was in 3/4, with the three reflecting the holy trinity of father, son and holy ghost. The C that is often printed on scores nowadays to mean common time (4/4) is in fact a broken circle and was known as imperfect time, whereas a full circle indicated perfect time, which we would today write as 3/4. Mark Bush, Milton Keynes

Dance music in 19th-century Britain and America was often in 6/8 time, and songs were quite often ballads with no strong beats at all. Waltzes in 3/4 were also popular, right through to the 1930s. A perusal of recordings of world music will show any listener that a wide variety of music has greater depth and more interesting meters, melodies, harmonies, timbres, acoustic instruments, rhythmic and personal interaction than any recent example of commercial music. Matthew de Lacey Davidson

I suspect it’s because the rhythm is iambic – like the English language. Der-duh of the 4/4 is the same as the heartbeat, the opening of the door to the home and the clunking of the pump on the bar. Helen Johnson

Logic suggests there must be a human predisposition to a 4/4 beat because in music where this is in the composition it either tunes into one’s own natural heart rhythm, or causes it to increase in time with it. This was further emphasised in a medical context with the campaign of giving first aid chest compressions using the aptly chosen Bee Gees song Stayin’ Alive. Peter Lacey, Eastbourne

The question assumes that “beat” means the same thing in every music culture. Beat is generally understood as a discrete point in time in western musical thought, and time is measured by the succession of beats. In traditional south Asian musical thought, for example, time is measured by matra, the space between “beats”. Time is experienced as a flow rather than a series of discrete events. So asking the question “Is 4/4 universal?” then becomes as meaningful, and culturally relevant, as asking what ragas are most commonly used in popular music? Diversity of musical thought makes the world a better place. WhatWouldIKnow

In Irish music the most common time signatures are 4/4 for reels and 6/8 for jigs. You can get some strong, driving rhythms going with a fast reel, but for dance music you can’t beat the bounce of a 6/8 jig. Siglo2

It’s more of a western disposition if anything – lots of Turkish, Greek and Indian music is in odd times such as 9/8. drunkandskint

There may be cultural preferences but it isn’t a human predisposition. African drumming, as an example, often favours 3/2. tcschultz

I think there is definitely a predisposition for 4/4 or 2/4 timing as this is the natural pace of walking and marching. I would say that the rhythm is definitely inbuilt in humans as this is how this timing would have developed – you can imagine people walking together and making up songs as they went. Ruth Bradbury

I think the answer is very simply because we have two legs and two arms, making it feel natural to respond to 4/4, or 2/4 even more so. Carole Franklin

You ever tried walking to Paranoid Android? The beat changes really throw you off your pace. Brian Fleming

Waltz rhythm is my beat, and I sense the world lives in three-quarter time. Jean Jackson, Guelph

The prevalence of polyrhythms in folk music around the world is proof enough that there is no fundamental human predisposition to 4/4. Rhythm, as any drummer knows, is naturalised through exposure and practice; rhythmic forms are products of nurture, not nature. Ryan Whyte, Toronto

Duple time is predominant throughout the western musical tradition, not just in pop music. 4/4 is duple time with every subdivision being duple as well. Why? It’s the simplest time pattern, just a downbeat and an upbeat, and it turns out that the simpler the pattern, the more flexible it is, and the more you can do with it. Triple times, or times with a triple division at some level, just intrude that little bit more, taking your attention from the music and making it more about the time pattern, and more so again for complex patterns, 7-time and the like. Perhaps you could call it a mathematical rather than a human predisposition. Gareth Adamson, London

As a songwriter, I can only write my (three-minute pop) songs while walking. The cadence of my steps often gets me in a semi-trance, which leads to the brain working differently, less concerned with mundane matters. I figure, since I only have two feet, this leads to a natural tendency to write in a 4/4 or 2/4 time signature. The few waltzes curiously weren’t written while walking. Bent Van Looy, Antwerp

I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Time signatures like 4/4 and 3/4 have a natural flow to them that is easily recognised by the brain. Throughout the history of modern pop/rock music there has been a focus on what patterns will have the most impact on listeners and since then it has been a snowball effect. Since audiences generally don’t hear different time signatures, they are less likely to appreciate them when they are heard or even be able to follow along without specifically being told how to count. But there are easily recognisable rhythms in 5/4 or 7/4 … the listener just needs to be open to adapting to the flow. David Klein

Music and dance developed simultaneously in early humans. Most humans have two feet (homo duopolis) and preference for dance steps inevitably developed to suit that. It follows that multiples of two (feet) became popular, including two x two (four-beat dance pattern).This has become ingrained into modern music culture along with grunting noises and head-swinging. The simian subclass relinquished the habit millions of years ago.

Some branches of humanity obviously started off with three feet and developed preferences for 3/4 or 3/8 if the music happened to be fast. This preference is still found today in Irish dancing (homo incomprehensis), which is an ancient throwback to when that particular branch had an uneven number of feet. This particular dancing prefers 6/8 due to its speed. Some country dancing found in the western counties of England also have a preference for a 6/8 rhythm when stimulated by scrumpy, a local narcotic. There is some evidence in the fossil record of an ancient five-legged offshoot. This line (homo brubecinus) died off very early due to being unable to stand up properly for more than five minutes.

In summary, the human race is stuck with the 4/4 preference until we grow more feet. There are encouraging early signs of this in Canberra, Australia. Bill Tomalin