- by Mary Barton
Rhythm, Beat & Tempo: What's the Difference?
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
If you’re confused about the difference between these essential components of music, join the club! We all are until someone explains it to us …
Think of beat as a “pulse” like your heartbeat - it’s steady, uninterrupted and each beat is the same length. Sometimes it speeds up when we are exerting ourselves or slows down when we are relaxing. In music, that’s called “tempo” - how fast or slow the beat is. But regardless of the pace or speed of your heart, it’s constant, and each beat is “on time”, like the seconds on a clock. If your heartbeats are erratic or irregular, this is not normal and sounds strange! And it’s the same in music.
Every piece of music needs a beat. It needs a steady, uninterrupted pulse by which to measure and organize the notes and provide a foundation on which to build a song.
Beat is a steady, even pulse.
Tempo is how fast is that steady pulse? Are there 40 even beats per minute, or 60 or a 100? Did we start with 100 even beats and then relax a little and slow down the song in a poignant section to, say, 80 even beats?
What then is rhythm?
While rhythm is a little more complex, it is comprised of three basic components:
1) Stress on a beat in a repeating pattern
2) Varied note lengths within a beat or notes held longer than a beat
3) Patterns of short and long notes within a piece
Let's examine Stress on a beat in a repeating pattern:
Think again of your heartbeat. It is steady but unstressed. We could think of it like this:
boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom
Can you distinguish one “boom” from another in this scenario? Each boom is the same as all the others. Can you hear anything but a repetitive, monotonous sound in your head? No matter how fast or slow these booms are, that is, no matter how fast or slow the tempo of these booms, they are repetitive, monotonous and indistinguishable from one another, and there is NO RHYTHM here.
But how about now?
BOOM boom boom BOOM boom boom BOOM boom boom
Can you hear the difference in your head just by reading these words? By stressing the first of every 3 beats, we have created a very simple rhythm! Speeding up the tempo of the beat doesn’t change or impact the rhythm – it just makes the whole thing faster!
Try saying the above line of booms out loud, making the capitalized BOOM's louder than the others while keeping a steady beat (like you’re counting down the last 10 seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve or playing hide-and-seek with your kids and counting to 10.) Now speed it up or slow it down. Next, instead of speaking it, try clapping it by starting with a loud clap followed by 2 softer claps, all with a steady, even tempo. That’s rhythm!
What if we were to stress the first of every 2 beats?
BOOM boom BOOM boom BOOM boom BOOM boom
Or the first of every 4 beats?
BOOM boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom
Speak and clap these too!
And what if we changed the order? What if we stressed the 2nd of every 2 beats?
boom BOOM boom BOOM boom BOOM boom BOOM
You get the picture! The combinations are endless! This is the most basic and essential component of rhythm. Without it, there’s no music, just noise!
Next time we’ll examine the second component of rhythm: Varied note lengths within a beat or notes held longer than a beat
Until then, the beat goes on …