One of the keys success as a musician is understanding how you can manipulate the elements of music, to play or create music. Meter in music is one such element. In this post, I will explain the concept of meter, why it’s so important, and how you can recognize it in music. You will also find some suggestions on how you can explore it in your music-making adventures. Let us begin!
For the sake of clarification, let’s distinguish some concepts that are implied when we talk about meter. In music, meter is something that reflects how music moves through time. It is oftentimes understood as a series of equidistant pulses also called beats. When we hear a series of pulses, our minds immediately start to organize those pulses into groups. This is called entrainment. We usually do this by perceiving some pulses as being stronger than others while listening to the music flow, and those cycles are our groupings.
Rhythm, melody and harmony usually exist and are organized within a frame that is set by these groupings; by the way we feel and organize the pulse accents. Enter time signatures, which are used in standard music notation as a way to indicate the meter of a piece of music.
The existence of so many types of time signatures is also indicative of the different ways to organize meters. In sum, you could say that we use different meters and their natural accents to organize rhythms into certain patterns. These patterns are perceived as groupings or rhythmic cycles. This is something that can be referred to as beat hierarchy, where beats that are more important are accented. Usually, the first beat of every measure is the strongest.
For instance, a meter represented by a 3/4 time signature implies that we have three beats per measure, where the accent is on the first beat. The second beat is weak and the third is a bit stronger, followed by the return to the first strong beat of the following measure. Below are audio examples of common meters with their natural accents or beat hierarchy:
Duple Meter – 2 beats per measure – i.e. Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes”
Triple Meter – 3 beats per measure – i.e. Strauss “Blue Danube Waltz”
Quadruple Meter – 4 beats per measure – i.e. Queen “Love of My Life”
As mentioned, there are many types of meters adjusted to the musical diversity we produce. This means that you can group beats as shown above or in any other odd combination. Overall, we can classify meters according their groupings which can be simple (as shown above), compound (beat is divided in three equal parts) or irregular. The latter is also referred to as asymmetric or odd meters. Meters can also change throughout a single piece of music and for the most part, composers can use it as a musical effect, which sometimes can be quite dramatic.
To avoid digressing too much beyond the scope of this post, there is a great article where you can read more about rhythm and different time signatures here.
To learn how to recognize the meter from a piece of music, you need to follow the even beats. The identification of stronger beats and the regularity of their repetition will inform you of how beats are grouped and thus, the meter.
The groove or rhythmic feel of a piece of music is usually tied to its meter and beat hierarchy. If you are able to identify these cycles, then you will find out the meter and consequently the time signature of that song.
Try this exercise: use the beat hierarchy associated to the meters from the examples above to feel the beat cycles. When you are able to count the beat cycles, do the same with music that you normally listen to.
As with all things, you may not feel so comfortable identifying meters, at first. With enough practice, you’ll find that this is an invaluable tool that you can use. Not only to identify different meters from other pieces of music, which can help you to predict musical events, but also as a compositional tool that you can use to create surprise or introduce unexpectedness in your music, as we will see next.
Learning how something works is usually the way to go if you want to be able to flip it around and make it work according to your vision. So, the old adage rings true here: – “learn the rules so that you can break them”. And as with all things in music, you don’t have to be bound by the beat hierarchy of each meter. You can play with it.
One of the ways you can use to disrupt beat hierarchy is to use syncopation. Basically, it consists of shifting the accent beat from the strong beat to a weak beat.
In this audio example, you will hear a shifting of the drum beat from the downbeat of the metronome to the upbeat:
Another way of flirting with the regular meter feel is to mix them up and create odd groupings. You can create odd or asymmetric meters as being the sum of two or more simple meters. For example, a 5/4 can be the sum of a 2/4 + 3/4 meters. As a result, the natural accents of each simple meter will interfere in the overall rhythmic flow of the 5/4, meaning that if the 5/4 was a 3/4 + 2/4, it would sound differently:
As a result, irregular meters are represented in different ways according to the intended natural accent or flow provided by the respective time signatures involved in the composition of the asymmetric division of the meter.
If you take the concept of beat hierarchy a bit further you can quickly start thinking about playing around with accents and shifting them to places where the listener is not expecting them. This is yet another way of influencing the listener in how a given rhythmic part or groove is perceived. In some cases, you can even use the same rhythmic cell that you have been using for that effect and that can be achieved when you displace the notes accents. In the example below, you would normally expect to hear the accents of
every four-note group of sixteenth notes to be on the first note of that group – much like the natural accents in a 4/4 meter. But as you can see, and hear, it sounds very different as the accents are displaced:
The final example is one where you can add different meters on top of the rhythm you already have. As you’ve learned, meters have their own naturally occurring accents that contribute to the feel of the general rhythmic flow. However, when polymeters are used the feel provided by the natural accent of meters is blurred.
As you might have guessed, a polymeter is a superimposition of different meters on top of each other. They are played at the same time and distinguishable from each other. In other words, it is the metrical equivalent of polytonality.
With polymeter the bar sizes differ and eventually meet after an ‘x’ number of bars. For instance, four bars of a 7/4 meter meet after seven bars of a 4/4 meter. Mind you that the tempo remains constant to all the instruments playing in that section:
And that’s it! We’ve covered the concept of what is meter in music and its importance to the organization of sounds through time. You’re also equipped with some exercises to either practice meter recognition, or explore this concept in your music compositions. The presented suggestions will already take you far. Now it’s time to start experimenting and bring your rhythms back to life! Tell us about your experimentations with meter in the comments below!
About the author:
Pedro Murino Almeida is an Award-Winning composer with the musical project Follow No One, expert musician and experienced music teacher. He maintains a blog called Beyond Music Theory with the aim of providing tools and instruction for beginning to advanced music students and those wishing to learn about music theory, how to use it and improve their songwriting and music production skills.
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