Thursday, 19 June 2008

4/4 time in modern music

A couple of weeks ago I posted about Oliver Sacks and his study of music in neurology. In the comments Kai Roberts asked:

"At a slight tangent, I was recently pondering on why the 4/4 time signature is so ubiquitous in popular music and why, as a musician, it's so easy to fall into. Is it simply learnt behaviour or is it somehow primal (perhaps connected with the rhythm of walking, for instance)?"
I find this a difficult question. 4/4 does have a satisfying appeal but I don't know why it singles itself out in popular music. Other timings are widespread in our culture. Two-steps, polkas and quicksteps are 2/4 or sometimes 2/2, waltz is 3/4 and then you get your foxtrots and tangos etc at 4/4. There are others, 6/8 springs to mind. All seem equally enjoyable to play, sing, listen or dance to. So why 4/4?

And what is the rhythm of walking? It repeats every two steps :Left Right: is that 2/1? Heartbeat must be similar.

Just recently I found the website Science Friday. They have a great archive of videos and podcasts and I found a couple of things which may add to the discussion.

I want to know more about this software. Watch the video Predicting Hit Songs (sorry, embedding didn't work).

Also on SciFri is another interview with Oliver Sacks on 'Musicophilia'. Watch the video for a snippet, but the full interview is in the audio player, top left. He makes an interesting point: very young children readily dance to music and chimpanzees do not. Somehow music and rhythm are associated with being human, or must have conferred some advantage to our ancestors. Why?

Why does beating a stick on a hollow log feel so good?


Thanks to Rob at bayblab for the link to SciFri.

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