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Meter (music)

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Meter (music)

Musical and lyric metre.

Meter or metre is the rhythmic structure of music.

The term was inherited from poetry (Scholes 1977 Latham 2002b) where it denotes: the number of lines in a measures of stressed and unstressed beats.

Metric structure

The term is not very precisely defined (Scholes 1977). MacPherson (1930, 3) preferred to speak of "time" and "rhythmic shape", Imogen Holst (1963, 17) of "measured rhythm". However, London has written a book about musical metre, which "involves our initial perception as well as subsequent anticipation of a series of beats that we abstract from the rhythm surface of the music as it unfolds in time" (London 2004, 4). This "perception" and "abstraction" of rhythmic measure is the foundation of human instinctive musical participation, as when we divide a series of identical clock-ticks into "tick-tock-tick-tock" (Scholes 1977). "Rhythms of recurrence" arise from the interaction of two levels of motion, the faster providing the pulse and the slower organizing the beats into repetitive groups (Yeston 1976, 50–52). "Once a metric hierarchy has been established, we, as listeners, will maintain that organization as long as minimal evidence is present" (Lester 1986, 77).

Metric levels: beat level shown in middle with division levels above and multiple levels below.

A definition of musical meter requires the possibility of identifying a repeating pattern of accented pulses — a "pulse-group" — which corresponds to the foot in poetry. Frequently a pulse-group can be identified by taking the accented beat as the first pulse in the group and counting the pulses until the next accent (MacPherson 1930, 5; Scholes 1977). Frequently meters can be broken down into a pattern of duples and triples (MacPherson 1930, 5; Scholes 1977).

The level of musical organisation implied by musical meter includes the most elementary levels of musical form (MacPherson 1930, 3).

Metrical rhythm, measured rhythm, and free rhythm are general classes of rhythm and may be distinguished in all aspects of temporality (Cooper 1973, 30). Metrical rhythm, by far the most common class in Western music, is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a fixed unit (beat, see paragraph below), and normal accents re-occur regularly, providing systematic grouping (measures, divisive rhythm). Measured rhythm is where each time value is a multiple or fraction of a specified time unit but there are not regularly recurring accents (additive rhythm). Free rhythm is where there is neither (Cooper 1973, 30). Some music, including chant, has freer rhythm, like the rhythm of prose compared to that of verse (Scholes 1977). Some music, such as some graphically scored works since the 1950s and non-European music such as Honkyoku repertoire for shakuhachi, may be considered ametric (Karpinski 2000, 19). Senza misura is an Italian musical term for "without meter", meaning to play without a beat, using time to measure how long it will take to play the bar (Forney & Machlis 2007, ).

Metric structure includes meter, tempo, and all rhythmic aspects that produce temporal regularity or structure, against which the foreground details or durational patterns of any piece of music are projected (Wittlich 1975, chapt. 3). Metric levels may be distinguished: the beat level is the metric level at which pulses are heard as the basic time unit of the piece. Faster levels are division levels, and slower levels are multiple levels (Wittlich 1975, chapt. 3). A rhythmic unit is a durational pattern which occupies a period of time equivalent to a pulse or pulses on an underlying metric level.

Frequently encountered types of meter

Meters classified by the number of beats per measure

Duple meter

Duple meter is a meter in which each measure is divided into two beats, or a multiple thereof (quadruple meter), for example, in the time signature 2/4, each measure contains two (2) quarter-note (4) beats, and with the time signature 6/8, each measure contains two dotted-quarter-note beats. Corresponding quadruple meters are 4/4, with 2 × 2 = 4 quarter-note beats per measure, and 12/8, with 2 × 2 = 4 dotted-quarter-note beats per measure.

Triple meter

Triple meter is a meter in which each measure is divided into three beats, or a multiple thereof. For example, in the time signature 3/4, each measure contains three (3) quarter-note (4) beats, and with a time signature of 9/8, each measure contains three dotted-quarter beats.

Meters classified by the subdivisions of a beat

Simple meter and compound meter are distinguished by the way the beats are subdivided.

Simple meter

Simple triple drum pattern: divides each of three beats into two About this sound   

Simple meter or simple time is a meter in which each beat of the measure divides naturally into two (as opposed to three) equal parts.

Simple quadruple drum pattern: divides each of four beats into two About this sound   

For example, in the time signature 3/4, each measure contains three crotchet (quarter note) beats, and each of those beats divides into two quavers (eighth notes), making it a simple meter. More specifically, it is simple triple because there are three beats in each measure; simple duple (two beats) or simple quadruple (four) are also common meters.

Compound meter

Compound triple drum pattern: divides each of three beats into three About this sound   

Compound meter, compound metre, or compound time (chiefly British variation), is a meter in which each beat of the measure divides naturally into three equal parts. That is, each beat contains a triple pulse (Latham 2002a).

Compound duple drum pattern: divides each of two beats into three About this sound   

Compound meters are written with a time signature that shows the number of divisions of beats in each measure as opposed to the number of beats. For example, compound duple (two beats, each divided into three) is written as a time signature with a numerator of six, for example, 6/8. Contrast this with the time signature 3/4 which also assigns six quavers to each measure, but by convention connotes a simple triple time: 3 crotchet beats.

Examples of compound meter:

  • 6/8 (compound duple meter) has two beats divided into three equal parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quaver, and a subordinate accent on the fourth quaver.
  • 9/8 (compound triple meter) has three beats divided into three parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quaver, and subordinate accents on the fourth and seventh quavers.
  • 12/8 (compound quadruple meter) has four beats divided into three equal parts, i.e., a primary accent on the first quaver, a secondary accent on the seventh quaver, and subordinate accents on the fourth and tenth quavers.

Although 3/4 and 6/8 are not to be confused, they use measures of the same length, so it is easy to "slip" between them just by shifting the location of the accents. This interpretational switch has been exploited, for example, by Leonard Bernstein, in the song "America" from West Side Story, as can be heard in the prominent motif About this sound   :

Some works with compound meter:

Counter-examples, not in compound meter

Compound meter divided into three parts could theoretically be transcribed into musically equivalent simple meter using triplets. Likewise, simple meter can be shown in compound through duples. In practice, however, this is rarely done because it disrupts conducting patterns when the Tempo changes. When conducting in 6/8, conductors typically provide two beats per measure. Where the tempo is slow, however, all six beats may be performed.

Compound time is associated with "lilting" and dance-like qualities. Folk dances often use compound time. Many Baroque dances are often in compound time: some gigues, the courante, and sometimes the passepied and the siciliana.

Meter in song

A German children's song shows a common fourfold multiplication of rhythmic phrases into a complete verse and melody. About this sound   

The concept of meter in music derives in large part from the Form of a musical passage).

Traditional and popular songs may draw heavily upon a limited range of meters, leading to interchangeability of melodies. Early hymnals commonly did not include musical notation but simply texts that could be sung to any tune known by the singers that had a matching meter. For example The Blind Boys of Alabama rendered the hymn Amazing Grace to the setting of The Animals' version of the folk song The House of the Rising Sun. This is possible because the texts share a popular basic four-line (quatrain) verse-form called ballad meter or, in hymnals, common meter, the four lines having a syllable-count of 8:6:8:6 (Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised), the rhyme-scheme usually following suit: ABAB. There is generally a pause in the melody in a cadence at the end of the shorter lines so that the underlying musical meter is 8:8:8:8 beats, the cadences dividing this musically into two symmetrical "normal" phrases of four measures each (MacPherson 1930, 14).

Two-fold, four-fold and eight-fold division and multiplication of phrases into measures and of phrases into passages is indeed "common" and "normal"—the above arrangement is typical of the Baroque suite and the Bach chorale—but it is far from universal. "God Save the Queen", for example, has six three-beat measures in its first phrase and eight in the second yet it still achieves symmetry. A Twelve-bar blues has three lines, not two or four, of four measures each.

In some regional music, for example Balkan music (like Bulgarian music, and the Macedonian 3+2+2+3+2 meter), a wealth of irregular or compound meters are used. Other terms for this are "additive meter" (London 2001, §I.8) and "imperfect time" (Read 1964, 147).

Meter in dance music

Typical figures of the waltz rhythm (Scruton 1997)

Meter is often essential to any style of dance music, such as the waltz or tango, that has instantly recognizable patterns of beats built upon a characteristic tempo and measure. The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (1983) defines the tango, for example, as to be danced in 2/4 time at approximately 66 beats per minute.

The basic slow step forwards or backwards, lasting for one beat, is called a "slow", so that a full "right-left" step is equal to one 2/4 measure.

But step-figures such as turns, the corte and walks-in also require "quick" steps of half the duration, each entire figure requiring 3-6 "slow" beats. Such figures may then be "amalgamated" to create a series of movements that may synchronise to an entire musical section or piece. This can be thought of as an equivalent of prosody.

Meter in classical music

A sequence of steps laid against the typical rhythm of the gavotte. Stylised folk-dances from all over Europe lent their characteristic meters to the Baroque suite.

In music of the common practice period (about 1600–1900), there are four different families of time signature in common use:

  • Simple duple—two or four beats to a bar, each divided by two, the top number being "2" or "4" (2/4, 2/8, 2/2 … 4/4, 4/8, 4/2 …). When there are four beats to a bar, it is alternatively referred to as "quadruple" time.
  • Simple triple (   )—three beats to a bar, each divided by two, the top number being "3" (3/4, 3/8, 3/2 …)
  • Compound duple—two beats to a bar, each divided by three, the top number being "6" (6/8, 6/16, 6/4 …)
  • Compound triple—three beats to a bar, each divided by three, the top number being "9" (9/8, 9/16, 9/4)
Rhythmic analysis of the metric elaboration of one phrase of a gavotte by J.S. Bach. Ebene (German: level).

If the beat is divided into two the meter is simple, if divided into three it is compound. If each measure is divided into two it is duple and if into three it is triple. Some people also label quadruple, while some consider it as two duples. Any other division is considered additively, as a measure of five beats may be broken into duple+triple (12123) or triple+duple (12312) depending on accent. However, in some music, especially at faster tempos, it may be treated as one unit of five.

Changing meter

In twentieth century concert music, it became more common to switch meter—the end of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is an example. A metric modulation is a modulation from one metric unit or meter to another. The use of asymmetrical rhythms also became more common: such meters include quintuple as well as more complex additive meters along the lines of 2+2+3 time, where each bar has two 2-beat units and a 3-beat unit with a stress at the beginning of each unit. Similar meters are used in various folk music as well as some music by Philip Glass. Additive meters may be conceived either as long, irregular meters or as constantly changing short meters.


Hypermeter: 4 beat measure, 4 measure hypermeasure, and 4 hypermeasure verses. Hyperbeats in red.
Opening of the third movement of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata. Notice that the melodic lines in bars 1 - 4 and 5 - 8 are (almost) identical. Hence, they must have the same hypermeter - 4 hyperbeats per hypermeasure. In this case, the "downbeat" of each hypermeasure is the low C, which is struck by the same hand which then plays the melody.

Hypermeter is large-scale meter (as opposed to surface-level meter) created by hypermeasures which consist of hyperbeats (Stein 2005, 329). "Hypermeter is meter, with all its inherent characteristics, at the level where measures act as beats." (Neal, Wolfe, and Akenson 2000, 115) For example, the four-bar hypermeasure is the prototypical structure for country music, in and against which country songs work (Neal, Wolfe, and Akenson 2000, 115). In classical music, the four bar hypermeter is a commonly observed practice, constituting the basis of symmetrical phrasing.

The term was coined by Cone (1968) while London (2004, 19) asserts that there is no perceptual distinction between meter and hypermeter. Lee (1985) and Middleton have described musical meter in terms of deep structure, using generative concepts to show how different meters (4/4, 3/4, etc.) generate many different surface rhythms. For example the first phrase of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night", without the syncopation, may be generated from its meter of 4/4 (Middleton 1990, 211):

4/4 4/4
2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4
1/4 1/4
1/8 1/8 1/8 1/8
It's been a hard day's night…

The syncopation may then be added, moving "night" forward one eighth note, and the first phrase is generated (About this sound   ).


The main distinction is between Polyrhythms and Polymeters. The two are often confused.

Polymeter is sometimes referred to as "tactus-preserving polymeter." The measure size differs, the beat is the same. Since the beat is the same, the various meters eventually agree. (Four measures of 7/4 = seven measures of 4/4).

Polyrhythm is sometimes referred to as "measure preserving polymeter,". The beat varies and the measure stays constant. For example, in a 4:3 polyrhythm, one part plays 4/4 while the other plays 3/4, but the 3/4 beats are stretched so that three beats of 3/4 are played in the same time as four beats of 4/4.

More generally, sometimes rhythms are combined in a way that is neither tactus nor measure preserving - the beat differs and the measure size also differs. See Polytempi.

Research into the perception of polymeter shows that listeners often either extract a composite pattern that is fitted to a metric framework, or focus on one rhythmic stream while treating others as "noise". This is consistent with the Gestalt psychology tenet that "the figure-ground dichotomy is fundamental to all perception" (Boring 1942, 253; London 2004, 49–50). In the music, the two meters will meet each other after a specific number of beats. For example, a 3/4 meter and 4/4 meter will meet after 12 beats.

In "Toads of the Short Forest" (from the album Mothers of Invention 1970). "Touch And Go", a hit single by The Cars, has polymetric verses, with the drums and bass playing in 5/4, while the guitar, synthesizer, and vocals are in 4/4 (the choruses are entirely in 4/4) (The Cars 1981, 15). The Swedish metal band Meshuggah makes frequent use of polymeters, with unconventionally timed rhythm figures cycling over a 4/4 base (Pieslak 2007).



Beat Preserving Polymeter 5/4 with 4/4
Beat Preserving Polymeter 5/4 with 3/4
Beat Preserving Polymeter 3/4 with 4/4
Beat Preserving Polymeter 2/4 with 3/8
Beat Preserving Polymeter 4/4 with 5/8
Beat Preserving Polymeter 4/4 with 7/8
Measure Preserving Polyrhythm 2:3
Measure Preserving Polyrhythm 4:3
Measure Preserving Polyrhythm 5:4

Various meters—sound

  1. sample of how     sounds in a tempo of 90bpm.
  2. sample of how     sounds in a tempo of 90bpm.
  3. sample of how     sounds in a tempo of 90bpm.
  4. sample of how     sounds in a tempo of 90bpm.
  5. sample of how     sounds in a tempo of 120bpm.

Various meters—video

For larger versions of the videos, click play, then go to More, then About this file

6/8 at tempo of 90 bpm
9/8 at tempo of 90 bpm
12/8 at tempo of 90 bpm
2/4 at a tempo of 60 bpm
3/4 at a tempo of 60 bpm
4/4 at a tempo of 60 bpm

See also


External links

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