From Amateur to Professional

Beats, bars and phrases

Ready for more music theory?

I’m sure the answer is yes. I hope you did the homework session and broke your own tracks down into its separate stages. This time we will be focusing on how the music is structured within these stages. We will do this by discussing beats, bars and phrases. As always, play the video on the right to help you listen to examples showing you what I’m talking about.

What is a beat exactly?

I will start with a diagram that people who have studied music theory will be very familiar with.

Bar of beats

Don’t worry too much about the symbols and lines. All you need to know is that this represents some notes that are being played. When you listen to a dance track, think about the start when the drums kick in. There is a distinct bass drum (commonly called a kick) that is in time with the track: dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum.

Each ‘dum’ is a beat and when you’re appreciating music by nodding your head or tapping on something, you’re keeping in time with the beats. If you don’t know what I mean, watch the video, it will all become clear.

What is a bar?

A group of beats can be collated into what we call a bar. The actual number of beats contained within a bar varies with different styles of music. With dance music you will get 4 beats in a bar (I’ve yet to hear a track that deviates from this rule, if you know of one I’d love to hear it).

In the diagram above, there were 4 beats displayed so these define a single bar. As an exercise play a dance track of yours and count the beats. When you can do that, count them in fours like: 1234 1234 1234 1234.

It is important to be able to listen to a piece of music and identify the 1st beat in a bar so you continue counting beats correctly. This will come naturally to most people. If not, listen carefully to all the sounds you’re hearing, there is sometimes something different about the 1st beat. When something about the track changes, the change happens on the 1st beat (like a crash symbol being played). You also tend to get snare drums or claps at beat 2 and beat 4 of the bar.

Let’s get more technical

I just want to point out that a beat isn’t the smallest note that can be played within a bar. If you listen to your track again during the ‘meat’ phase (see previous tutorial for definition of this), you will count the bass kick at every bar yet you may also hear hi-hats happening twice as fast. These are half the length of the normal beat so you get 2 hi-hats for each bass kick.

What is a phrase?

The final thing I want to talk about is a very important one to understand when it comes to mixing. You now know what a bar of beats is an that it is important to count bars correctly to mix 2 tracks together (which we will do when we talk about beatmatching in the future). What you have to keep in mind is that you can’t just mix any bar of track 1 to any bar of track 2. Just like beats are grouped into bars, the bars themselves are grouped into phrases.

When it comes to trance, a phrase consists of 8 bars. When listening to the track, just as it is important to identify the 1st beat in a bar, you should be able to identify the 1st bar in a phrase. Earlier I mentioned that when something changes in a track, it happens on the 1st beat of the bar. Well, it tends to happen on the 1st beat of the 1st bar of a phrase.

Confused? Watch the video.

Until next time….

I hope this post made sense to you. It may be that I’ve made a simple topic more complicated than it needs to be by not explaining it very well. If so please let me know. We will conclude our session on music theory next time by discussing pitch, tempo and key.