Enthusiasms: Two Beats Per Measure

There are many ways to talk about meter in music, and I find it difficult to say anything with particular concreteness without worrying over exceptions… but I thought it might be interesting to write about “beats per measure” — how many times a listener taps their foot between downbeats (at some point too, I’ll post about music that doesn’t have downbeats, or has multiple downbeats).


Technically, the shortest possible meter is a one-beat. The perfectly even pulse of a ticking clock is a good example. It’s interesting that though clocks go, “Tick, tick,” we tend to hear, “Tick, tock.” People divide things up at least into twos: an emphasized beat, and a de-emphasized one, not unlike the lub-dub of ventricular systole in our hearts. So the shortest measure is usually said to have two beats. In the realm of two-beat music, one encounters, among other styles, marches, polkas, and the samba.

One of my favorite march tweaks is the version of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” that appeared on Matmos’ album The Civil War:

Despite the glitchiness of the reconstruction, the two pulse beat is clear. Here’s a bit of the sheet music of Sousa’s original orchestration, in his own hand (the whole score can be downloaded here at the Petrucci Music Archive). The ยข at the beginning of each stave indicates “cut time,” another term for two beats per measure.

Stars and Stripes sheet music

Stars and Stripes sheet music

The Liverpool-based Americana band Shake The Little Foot has a hoedown-style Polka at the Free Music Archive titled “Dennis Murphy’s Polka.” The rollick of the polka seems similar to the parade step of the march.

Brazilian samba, and the style of bossa nova, which grew from it, is also built on a two-beat pulse. I love this closing scene from the 1959 film Black Orpheus, much of which was shot in a favela of Rio de Janeiro. The rhythm kicks in as the clip goes into its second half.

If you’re interested in many musics of Brazil, there’s a great BBC documentary entirely available online called Brasil, Brasil – Samba to Bossa. Below is the first installment, which describes the influence of the slave trade on the development of samba, as the Catholicism of the occupying Portuguese mixed with the religious traditions of African slaves. The use of slaves in Brazil, primarily in sugar plantations, spanned from the 1500s to the institution of the “Golden Law” in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish the practice (However, to say slavery no longer exists there would be incorrect. In 2004 it was estimated that approximately 50,000 slaves currently worked in Brazil. Here are several excellent articles by Kevin Hall, a reporter for Knight Ridder).

As I produce more of these entries this year, I’ll periodically return to the subject of meter.

Steven Arntson is a writer and composer who performs as a concertina soloist and with the quartet The Toy Boats. Upcoming appearances are posted on his Facebook page, and recordings, scores, and articles reside at his website.

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