My Attempt at Rudimentary Music Theory

Mandatory Disclaimer: I only know enough music theory to “get by”, and I am by no means a music major.  I can, however, teach the curious what I know.  If I go wrong, constructive correction/criticism is appreciated.


The following is my attempt at teaching basic music theory.  It’s designed to provide general knowledge for those wishing to improve their dancing by possessing some knowledge of music.  *assumes crash position*

Finding the Beat

The term beat in reference to a song is pretty common (i.e. “That song has a nice beat.”).  However, beat in reference to music theory is a bit more complex.  Some people can find the proper beat in a piece of music instinctively.  For others, more teaching is required.  But, before I get to beat, I have to go into the mechanics of sheet music.

Above, you see a piece of waltz music, more specifically, “The Tennessee Waltz”.  Now, I’m not going to explain every single aspect of this piece, basics only.  First and foremost, when looking at a piece of sheet music, look for the time signature.  The time signature is in the top leftmost corner of the sheet.  It resembles a fraction.  This piece is in three-quarter time.  What does that mean?  Direct your attention to the two numbers in the time signature.  The top number, a three in this case, is the number of beats per measure.  A measure is like a divider in a piece of music and is indicated by the vertical line that runs straight through the bars.  The bottom number indicates the note that gets the beat, in this case, the quarter note (more on this later).  So, three-quarter time consists of three beats per measure with the beat on the quarter note.  Most waltzes are in three-quarter time, which is why teachers will often count “one-two-three” when teaching tempo as they’re essentially speaking in three-quarter time with the emphasis on the second beat.

Watering it Down

Confession time.  My middle school music teacher was awful.  She would just play a piece of music over and over again to make sure we got it right, and would never go into the mechanics.  Thus, I am considerably behind in literacy for my age when it comes to music.  I can read music if given a couple of minutes to look at a piece.  I cannot, however, sight-read.  I don’t want this to happen to any of you.  So, I’m going to water it down and teach it to you as I was taught back in high school *gasp*.

Let’s learn the bare basics in light of “The Tennessee Waltz”.  First, look at this picture:

This is the quarter note.  Memorize what it looks like as it serves as a springboard for other notes (which I’ll get into in a possible future post).  Clap your hand once.  That’s the rhythm of a quarter note.  So, a measure in three-quarter time would go “clap-clap-clap”.  Personally, I learned the quarter note as tah.  Now, the four at the bottom of the time signature indicates that this note gets the beat.  An easy way to remember four and a quarter note is in relation to each other is to think of the dollar.  It takes four quarters to make a dollar.  Now, we can move on to beat (Yes, you really do have to know all of this before you can truly understand beat).  A beat is really just a clap, to put it simply.  Therefore, three-quarter time claps three times per measure because the quarter note gets the beat as indicated by the four in the time signature.  (There are many other time signatures, but three-quarter is common time, and in my opinion is easiest to learn in relation to musical theory.)  So, in light of what we’ve just learned, let’s put it all together.

Music, Rhythm, and Beats

As I said at the beginning, some people can instinctively find the proper beat to a piece of music and start dancing to it.  What I mean is that these people can mentally gauge the measures of a piece of played music, and find the note that gets the clap/beat.  Most do it without even realizing it.  Finding a beat can happen at any time during the music, and finding that initial dancing beat is also known as “finding the one“.  Most dances, thank God, start on one.  (Mambo, however, starts on two.  Learning Mambo was difficult for me precisely because I had to find and hold that one, and step on two.)  Bet you didn’t even realize how complex finding the beat could be.  I sure didn’t when I first learned.  If you want to really hear some prominent 1’s, listen to swing music, as they tend to have beats on the ones and three’s.  Try this one.

That’s It! (For Now?)

I didn’t bore/confuse you too much, did I?  I do have a primary reason for writing this post.  Most people I’ve met, can find the beat instinctively.  But, it really isn’t enough to just know it in your head.  To really better yourself as a dancer (or anything else that involves music), you have to understand the mechanics of music.  Don’t worry too much.  I have a considerable foundation in music theory, but not enough to say, be a music major. If you know the basics (and there are a lot of basics), you’ll do just fine.  I didn’t have this knowledge when I should’ve, so I’m taking the liberty of teaching those that don’t know what I know so that they don’t end up behind like I did.  If I am going to continue the basics of musical theory, I’d appreciate feedback.  You can Like this post, or comment (preferably the latter, so I can edit).  Either way, learning music is really close to my heart, and I’d love to write more.


The floor is yours now.

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