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1: Meter in Music

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    Firefly A colorful image of a time signature representing meter in music 48886.jpgWhat is Meter?

    The meter of a piece of music is the arrangement of its rhythms in a repetitive pattern of strong and weak beats. This does not necessarily mean that the rhythms themselves are repetitive, but they do strongly suggest a repeated pattern of pulses. It is on these pulses, the beat of the music, that you tap your foot, clap your hands, dance, etc.

    Some music does not have a meter. Ancient music, such as Gregorian chants; new music, such as some experimental twentieth-century art music; and Non-Western music, such as some native American flute music, may not have a strong, repetitive pattern of beats. Other types of music, such as traditional Western African drumming, may have very complex meters that can be difficult for the beginner to identify.

    Most Western music has simple, repetitive patterns of beats. This makes meter a very useful way to organize the music. Common notation, for example, divides the written music into small groups of beats called measures, or bars. The lines dividing each measure from the next help the musician reading the music to keep track of the rhythms. A piece (or section of the piece) is assigned a time signature that tells the performer how many beats to expect in each measure, and what type of note should get one beat.

    Classifying Meters

    Meters can be classified by counting the number of beats from one strong beat to the next.

    Duple meter will have a repeated pattern of two beats strong - weak, strong-weak, strong-weak. Triple Meter will have three beats in the pattern of Strong- weak- weak, Strong- weak -weak, and quadruple meter will have four beats Strong, weak, weak, weak, Strong weak, weak, weak,. Sometimes in quadruple meter the third beat of the measure will also have a slight emphasis. 

    These basic meters can be classified as either simple or compound. If each beat can be divided into groups of two the meter is considered simple. If the beats can be divided into groups of three, the meter is considered compound. 

    Recognizing Meters

    To learn to recognize meter, remember that (in most Western music) the beats and the subdivisions of beats are all equal and even. So you are basically listening for a running, even pulse underlying the rhythms of the music. For example, if it makes sense to count along with the music “ONE-and-Two-and-ONE-and-Two-and” (with all the syllables very evenly spaced) then you probably have a simple duple meter. But if it’s more comfortable to count “ONE-and-a-Two-and-a-ONE-and-a-Two-and-a”, it’s probably compound duple meter. (Make sure numbers always come on a pulse, and “one” always on the strongest pulse.)


    Figure 1. Remember that meter is not the same as time signature; the time signatures given here are just examples. For example, 2/2 and 2/8 are also simple duple meters.

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