What causes the prevalence of 4 beat rhythms?



It seems like the human brain automatically sorts noises into patterns across 4 beats… But is this instead a cultural thing (nature vs. nurture)? For both answers: how and why did it develop in that way?

In: Other

Perhaps [this article] (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00366/full) provides the answer you seek.

Beats differ across culture. And people respond differently to different beats based on their background.

However, musical notation originates from classical music, which uses the western 4 beat notation. As such, 3 beat, 2 beat and other forms are often notated as a different version of 4 beats: [link](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(music))

There does seem a preference for 2 beat music over 3 beat music. [link] (https://www.livescience.com/51397-people-dance-to-same-beat-worldwide.html)

I believe it’s because it’s so versatile. There are more combinations of melodies, etc with a 4-beat rhythm than with a 2 or 3 beat rhythm. Music is just math after all.

Here’s an excellent video by David Bennett that discusses this exact topic: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC6zLP97wWA](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC6zLP97wWA) Amusingly, a lot of the answers were sourced from Reddit, so I guess this closes the loop!

Basically, there’s two schools of thought: one that claims there’s some innate quality to 4/4 that makes it common, appealing or natural, and some that believe 4/4 is popular due to cultural or societal factors. The ‘humans are bipedal’ argument falls into the innate camp, whereas the cultural camp notes that more unusual time signatures can be quite common in non-Western cultures.

Naturally these answers are not mutually exclusive. It can be a little bit of nature, plus a little bit of culture. But it’s a really interesting topic!

As with most things in music it’s very hard to tell what is a result of society and what is the result of nature. Many cultures have different approaches to rhythm. Some types of music don’t have a steady rhythmic beat. Balkan music has steady beat, but those beats have different lengths, some are short some are long. Our ideas about rhythm in the west come from Africa and Cuba (usually called afro-cuban) combined with traditional western European music.

Grouping 4 beats together isn’t universal, but it does provide a lot of benefits. Groups of 4 are symmetrical. Almost always 2 of those 4 beats will be emphasized, 1 and 3 for more European styles 2 + 4 for more afro cuban styles (I’m speaking like super duper generally here). Where as a group of 3 has 1 emphasized beat and 2 unemphasized. A group of 5 or 7 would also not be symmetrical. A big advantage of 4 is you can have a really steady rhythm that’s not as unbalanced as other groupings.

Personally I think that when you start combining multiple rhythms at the same time and making those rhythms fairly complex, like afro cuban music it is helpful to have a steady underlying beat. The actual rhythms are so complicated you want that steadiness of a symmetrical rhythm rather than one that that has a natural unbalance to it.

To your point your brain certainly does group noises into 4 beat patterns, but that’s because you’ve heard 4 beat patterns grouped together your entire life. How often have you heard anything different? If you grew up listening to music that didn’t primarily feature this type of rhythm would your brain still group 4’s together? I don’t know, but its hard to say definitively.

4/4 like patterns can be traced back to early African tribal rhythms which may point to some natural draw to them. However, 3/4 and 6/8 times were extremely prevalent in the heyday of waltzes (17th-19th centuries).

In my opinion, it’s largely cultural. 5/8, 7/8, and 5/4 time signatures are incredibly common in Greek and Armenian music, for example. Also, I think I encounter 6/8 time signatures *nearly* as often as 4/4, 3/4, or 2/4. It’s all over the place. So I guess I kind of disagree with the premise.

I don’t really have an answer but I do have an example of this. I was listening to Frank Ocean (Pink + White I believe) and I was tapping along to the beat, except I felt off. After a while of fiddling around I realized it was in 3/4 and it was weird. It’s not something you notice until you try to tap along.

It’s my position that common time in music is 4/4 because it’s the simplest pattern for our brains to process and make sense of.

4/4 = 1.

The value of the denominator in a time signature defines the spatial parameters of how a measure, or cycle is counted.

The value of the numerator is how many beats has to occur within the measure within the constraints of its time cycle (designated by the denominator).

Since time is measured in fractions, an uncommon time signature can eventually formulate into a form of common time; such as
6/8 = 3/4 (waltz time signature).

6/8 has an uncommon count, within a common spatial parameter.

Fascinating question.

This could be apocryphal, but a lot of old school music is in 3/4 because it mirrors heart beats. Think Greensleeves…

Alas my love you do me wrong…

The emphasis is the same as heartbeats.

I’m not a scientist but my best guess is that is somewhat similar to the sound of your heart beating, which your ears hear all the time but learn to tune out. Add in some dancing and your heart beats a bit faster.

My guess: When people cut a pizza, you cut it first in half, spin the pizza, cut it in half again, spin the pizza and cut those halves once each. You end up with 8 slices regardless of the size of the pizza, unless you really stop and think about it.

Try to cut a pizza in 6th some time. The first slice (half) is easy, but slicing that half into equal thirds takes a bit more thought and concentration. It’s easy to gauge something as being equal on either side.

Time signatures are very similar, you just dividing a bar of music in half and then half again. So, if you’re beating a drum, and you hit it 4 times, evenly spaced, it’s really easy to throw a funky beat between the 4 on the floor style 1,2,3,4.

Of course not all music is that way – because it’s not required, and with a bit more thought other time signatures will start to feel natural, and could have other inspirations behind them, but they would be more varied (which is exactly what we find) across cultures.