The exact origins of the terms 'beat music' and 'Merseybeat' are uncertain. Beat music seems to have had little to do with the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s, and more to do with driving rhythms, which the bands had adopted from their rock and roll, rhythm and blues and soul music influences. As the initial wave of rock and roll declined in the later 1950s, "big beat" music, later shortened to "beat", became a live dance alternative to the balladeers like Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard who were dominating the charts.
The name Mersey Beat was used for a Liverpool music magazine founded in 1961 by Bill Harry. Harry claims to have coined the term "based on a policeman's beat and not that of the music". The band the Pacifics were renamed the Mersey Beats in February 1962 by Bob Wooler, MC at the Cavern Club and in April that year they became the Merseybeats. With the rise of the Beatles in 1963, the terms Mersey sound and Merseybeat were applied to bands and singers from Liverpool, and this was the first time in British pop music that a sound and a location were linked together. The equivalent scenes in Birmingham and London were described as Brum beat and the Tottenham Sound respectively.
The most distinctive characteristic of the music was the strong beat, using the backbeat common to rock and roll and rhythm and blues, but often with a driving emphasis on all the beats of 4/4 bar. The rhythm itself—described by Alan Clayson as "a changeless four-four offbeat on the snare drum"—was developed in the clubs in Hamburg, West Germany, where many English groups, including the Beatles, performed in the early 1960s and where it was known as the mach schau (make show) beat. The 8/8 rhythm was flexible enough to be adopted for songs from a range of genres. In addition, according to music writer Dave Laing,
"he chord playing of the rhythm guitar was broken up into a series of separate strokes, often one to the bar, with the regular plodding of the bass guitar and crisp drumming behind it. This gave a very different effect from the monolithic character of rock, in that the beat was given not by the duplication of one instrument in the rhythm section by another, but by an interplay between all three. This flexibility also meant that beat music could cope with a greater range of time-signatures and song shapes than rock & roll had been able to".
Beat groups usually had simple guitar-dominated line-ups, with vocal harmonies and catchy tunes. The most common instrumentation of beat groups featured lead, rhythm and bass guitars plus drums, as popularized by the Beatles, the Searchers, and others. Beat groups—even those with a separate lead singer—often sang both verses and choruses in close harmony, resembling doo wop, with nonsense syllables in the backing vocals.