Readers Answer: Is there a human predisposition to a 4/4 time 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 form of music? Michael Cameron Mowat

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Readers Answer

Limiting us to Europe alone, 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 there almost no Earth music in 4/4?” BrendasIronSled

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

I think it’s cultural rather than inherent. Go back to the 15th and 16th century 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 spirit. The C commonly printed on music scores today to denote common time (4/4) is in fact a broken circle and was known as imperfect timewhile a full circle indicated perfect time, which we would write today as 3/4. Mark Bush, Milton Keynes

Dance music in 19th-century Britain and America was often in 6/8 time, and songs were often ballads without strong beats. Waltzes in 3/4 were also popular, well into the 1930s. A study of world music recordings will show any listener that a wide variety of music has more 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 house and the thumping of the pump on the bar. Helen Johnson

Logic suggests that there must be a human predisposition to a 4/4 beat, because in music where this is in the composition, it either tunes in to its own natural heart rhythm or makes sure it goes with the beat. In a medical context, this was further emphasized with the campaign to give first aid chest compressions with the well-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 seen as a distinct time in Western musical thought, and time is measured by the succession of beats. For example, in traditional South Asian musical thinking, time is measured by: dimension, 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 the question of which ragas are most commonly used in popular music? Diversity of musical thinking makes the world a better place. What Would I Now?

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

It’s more of a western institution if anything – a lot of Turkish, Greek and Indian music is in strange times like 9/8. drunk and skin

There may be cultural preferences, but it is not a human predisposition. For example, African drumming often prefers 3/2. tcschultz

I think there is definitely a predisposition to 4/4 or 2/4 timing as this is the natural pace of walking and marching. I’d say the rhythm is definitely built into people because this is how this timing would have developed – you can imagine people walking together and making up songs as they go. Ruth Bradbury

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

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

Waltz rhythm is my rhythm and I feel that the world is alive in three quarters of time. Jean Jackson, Guelpha

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 naturalized through exposure and practice; rhythmic forms are products of education, not of nature. Ryan Whyte, Toronto

Double time is dominant throughout the western music tradition, not just pop music. 4/4 is double time where each subdivision is also double. 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 tenses, or times with a triple division at some level, push that little bit more, taking your attention away from the music and making it more about the time pattern, and more so for complex patterns, 7-times and the like. Perhaps you could call it a mathematician rather than a human aptitude. Gareth Adamson, London

As a songwriter, I can only write my (three minute pop) songs while walking. The cadence of my steps often puts me in a semi-trance, which leads to the brain working differently, less preoccupied with mundane matters. I think since I only have two feet this leads to a natural tendency to write in 4/4 or 2/4 time signature. Strangely enough, the pair of waltzes are not written while running. Bent Van Looy, Antwerp

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Time signatures such as 4/4 and 3/4 have a natural flow that is easily recognized by the brain. Throughout the history of modern pop/rock music, there has been a focus on which patterns will have the most impact on listeners and it has snowballed ever since. Since the audience generally doesn’t hear different time signatures, they are less likely to appreciate them when heard or even be able to follow without being specifically told how to count. But there are easily recognizable rhythms in 5/4 or 7/4…the listener just has to be open to adapt to the flow. David Klein

Music and dance developed simultaneously in early man. Most people have two feet (male duopolis) and the preference for dance steps inevitably developed. It follows that multiples of two (feet) became popular, including two x two (four-beat dance pattern). This is ingrained in modern music culture, along with growling noises and head waving. The monkey subclass gave up the habit millions of years ago.

Some branches of humanity obviously started out at three feet and developed preferences for 3/4 or 3/8 if the music happened to be fast. This preference can still be found in Irish dance (the unknowable person), which is an ancient throwback to the time when that particular branch had an odd number of feet. This particular dance prefers 6/8 for its speed. Some country dances 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 spur. This line (gay brubecinus) died very early because they couldn’t stand properly for more than five minutes.

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

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