How to Understand Beats, Time Signatures, and Tempo for Beginning Pianists

The foundations of rhythm in piano playing - and all music - are divided into 3 categories:

  1. Beat
  2. Time Signatures
  3. Tempo

Each one of these aspects of Rhythm is introduced early in our piano learning because they are the foundation of all other things we are going to learn about rhythm as we advance in our playing.

This lesson will break down each aspect and explain what it is and how it functions in our piano playing. Also, we will learn how they all relate to each other and are equally necessary for understanding the rhythmic aspects of any piece or exercise.

At the end of this lesson is the video portion where you will get a chance to see me go over these 3 concepts and how I play them on the piano.

First, let's look at what beats are in music and why they are important.

Step 1: What Are Beats?

The beat in music is that steady pulse that you hear throughout the entire piece.

Beats occur at regular intervals - much like your own heartbeat. No matter how fast or slow it is beating, it is still beating. That 'beating of your heart' is the same as the 'beat' in music. So think about the "heartbeat" of the music when you want to find the main beat of the composition.

Sometimes it is easy to see the regular beats in written music. In this example, we can see 4 quarter notes in a steady, regular sequence. Other times we have to put notes together to make up the beats according to what type of notes they are.

Next, we need to look at Tempo, what that is and how it helps us to understand the beats in a piece even better.

Step 2: What Is Tempo?

Tempo is the speed at which we play the beats in our music.

When we physically exercise, we notice that our heart rate increases, and when we are sedentary, our heart rate decreases. Our heart still beats no matter if it is a slow beat or a fast beat.

This is what tempo is...it is how fast or slowly we play the beats.

The tempo of a piece is usually indicated at the very beginning of the piece by either a number next to some type of note or by a word describing the tempo.

When we first learn a new scale, exercise or piece, we can control the tempo and slow it down to help us practice correctly so we can play it correctly at the designated tempo.

Another important aspect of rhythm that we need to look at before moving on to Time Signatures, is what a note duration is and what measures are.


Step 3: What Are Note Durations and Measures?

Note Durations are how long we play each note on the piano when playing a piece.

Remember that:

  • Whole Notes = 4 counts each
  • Half Notes = 2 counts each
  • Quarter Notes = 1 count each

Image 1 shows two half notes - so we know to play and count 2 beats for each note. We can have a variety of note durations in one measure.

Measures divide up the notes in a piece according to the number of beats that are designated by the Time Signature.

A Measure Line (image 2) is what you see going from the bottom to the top of the staff and they tell us where each measure is.

Now, let's find out how Time Signatures bring all of these aspects together to make up the bigger picture of the rhythm in a piece.

Step 4: What Are Time Signatures?

Time Signatures tell us how many beats are in a measure and what kind of note will get that beat.

Time Signatures appear at the beginning of the music and have 2 numbers in them.

  • The top number tells us how many beats are in each measure
  • The bottom number tells us what kind of note gets the beat

Think of it this way: The top number tells us how many...of what - the what is the bottom number.

  • Image 1 shows us a 4/4 Time Signature which means that we have 4 Quarter Beats in each measure.
  • Image 2 shows us a 3/4 Time Signature which means that we have 3 Quarter Beats in each measure.
  • Image 3 shows us a 6/8 Time Signature which means that we have 6 Eighth Beats in each measure.

Now let's go work on this together at the piano so I can show you how to play each of these different aspects of rhythm on your piano.

Step 5: Come Practice With Me!

This video will take visually through each step in this lesson and we will go over a lot of examples of different note durations, playing in different time signatures, where the measure lines are in your music, and we'll clap some beats at regular intervals so you can find that steady pulse yourself with any piece that you play.

I'll also go over some of the different terms that describe the Tempo of a piece and we'll play some examples at different speeds so you can test your own abilities!

Ready to practice with me?

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