Are we programmed to beat 4/4?

Are we programmed to beat 4/4?


norman lebrecht

April 26, 2022

Fascinating discussion on the Guardian’s Readers Response page.


As a songwriter, I can only write my (three-minute pop) songs while walking. The cadence of my steps often gets me in a semi-trance, which leads to the brain working differently, less concerned with mundane matters. I figure, since I only have two feet, this leads to a natural tendency to write in a 4/4 or 2/4 time signature. The few waltzes curiously weren’t written while walking. Bent Van Looy, Antwerp

There may be cultural preferences but it isn’t a human predisposition. African drumming, as an example, often favours 3/2. tcschultz

It’s more of a western disposition if anything – lots of Turkish, Greek and Indian music is in odd times such as 9/8. drunkandskint

I suspect it’s because the rhythm is iambic – like the English language. Der-duh of the 4/4 is the same as the heartbeat, the opening of the door to the home and the clunking of the pump on the bar. Helen Johnson

Read on here.


  • Bea says:

    Proof, the English are square. (humour)

  • John Borstlap says:

    We know that Stravinsky first tried-out his rhythmic complexities of the Sacre du Printemps during his daily walks in the little town in Switserland where he was staying at the time, and regularly stumbled and falling over his own feet. On one occasion he fell into the river while trying-out the Danse Sacrale and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Many “machine noises” are in 4, and Gershwin was said to think up many portions of the Rhapsody in Blue while riding in trains and hearing the “I think I can” of the steam locomotive up front.

    But what of dance music – isn’t most of it in 3? Or do our brains hard-wired to 4/4 explain why so few can dance well?

    My father taught me how to swing a golf club by thinking in 3/4 time. (Do I Hear a Waltz? Nope. Do I See a Slice? Yup.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      Hungarians talk in 5/4 and 10/8, that’s why their language is so hard to learn. Russians talk in additive rhythm, like a chain with little chops of irregular length, hence their eternal political troubles. A little village in Tanguanyka is famous for its small community of entirely silent people who have no rhythm at all in anything, they sit still and silently, and are very happy. Rhythm and metrum are culturally diverse.