On Rhythm and Meter

On Rhythm and Meter graphic.pngThis week, I was going to post on musical forms such as the symphony, gavotte, etc, but I soon realized that that post would have quite a bit of meter in there. Meter is kind of a tricky concept to grasp—I didn’t fully understand it for a long time, myself—so I thought it would be appropriate to write about rhythm and meter as a sort of preparatory post to the one on musical forms.


Let’s begin with the basics: rhythm. It shouldn’t take us too long because I’m sure most of you know about it already. Still, it’s good to go over rhythm because it’s important to understand it when learning meter.

Quarter notes.png

Quarter notes

These are quarter notes, the most basic of all our notes.

Eighth notes

Eighth notes

To cut the quarter note into half, we just put a beam between the two notes. For one note,  add a little flag to the top. That’s an eighth note.The nice thing is that that’s pretty much all you need to know when using quarter notes and shorter notes. You can divide that note in half again by adding another beam to it – that’s a sixteenth note.

In the beginning, you’ll deal with quarters, eighths, and some sixteenths, but you can get up to thirty-seconds, sixty-fourths, and hundred and twenty-eighths. (I’ll be posting a tidbit on the hundred and twenty-eighth note soon.)

Here’s a famous example of hundred and twenty-eighth notes in Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. (I put 64ths in purple and 128ths in red.) In this instance, however, hundred and twenty-eighths are not exactly the value of the notes; rather, Beethoven used them to tell the performer that the passages are to be played rapidly.

Sonata Pathetique.png

Half note.png

Half note

For notes longer than the quarter note, you have the half note, which is double the quarter note and looks just like it, except it’s not filled in.

Whole note.png

Whole note

And then finally, the whole note. It’s a half note without the stem.

Tied notes.png

Two tied whole notes

If you want to have longer notes than the whole note, you must use a special curved line called a tie to “tie” certain notes to each other.

Dotted quarter note.png

Dotted quarter note

One last thing – we also use dots to lengthen notes. A dot adds half the value of the note that precedes it. For example, if you divide one quarter note into eighths, it’s worth two eighth notes. The dot means that you must take half the quarter note (one eighth note) and tack it onto the quarter note, thereby leaving you with three eighth notes – worth one and a half quarter notes.

The last example in the picture above uses a tie instead of a dot to represent the one and a half quarter notes. This is perfectly legitimate, but composers use the dot more often.


Before we go on to meter, I’d like to define a closely related concept – beat. Simply put, the beat is just the pulse of the music. You hear that pulse because the beats are being consistently grouped in a certain way; for instance, you might hear the beat strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak in a waltz. Some unit of time is grouped into measures of music so that, though the rhythms might be different in each measure, the values of the notes add up to equal the same thing every time. This results in beat.

This method of making each measure last the same amount of time is called meter. Meter is how you hear the beat, or else the music would be random, all over the place. Meter adds structure.

Here are a few examples of meter (the term for the actual notation is “time signature”):


The top number in a time signature refers to the number of beats which will be grouped in one measure and the bottom number tells you your “unit of measurement”. If you were to merely see a 2 as a time signature, meaning that there are two beats to a measure, that still doesn’t tell you much because you need to know 2 of what kind of beat. So we add a bottom number to tell you what kind of note we’re using. A 4 on the bottom (as in the Mozart example) would mean a quarter note, an 8 would mean an eighth note, and so on. The most common time signature is 4/4 time: 4 beats to a measure with a quarter note being the value of each beat.

Common time.png

Common time

Because 4/4 time is used so often, it’s also written as a C, which stands for Common time.

Cut time

Cut common time

There is also a C with a line through it which stands for another common time signature – 2/2 time. 2/2 time is also called alla breve or cut common time.

What’s interesting about time signatures is that they can actually dictate tempo. There’s a reason why 2/2 time and 4/4 time are different; 2/2 time is by definition much faster than 4/4—typically it’s march-like—because if you have a slow 2/2, it begins to sound like 4/4.

Anyway, my point is that, though they do use other tempo indications for the sake of precision, composers can tell you a lot about tempo through time signature alone. You can experience this for yourself by singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame very slowly. Feel the pulse in the music. There are three beats. Now sing it quite fast and tap along to the beat. You should feel two beats, going strong-weak. Just by writing that the piece is in 3/4 time, the composer is telling the performer to play it (relatively) slowly.

Categorizing meter

Now that we know what the numbers in a time signature mean, we can talk about the different kinds of meter. Any time signature will belong in one of the six types shown in the table below: (Don’t worry if the table doesn’t make any sense just yet.)

Meter Table.png

Meter will be either duple, triple, or quadruple, and it will also be either simple or compound.

What do these terms mean? In essence, whether the meter is duple, triple, or quadruple will tell you how many beats are in the measure, and whether the meter is simple or compound will tell you how many “sub-beats” are contained in the main beats.

Actually, we already learned duple, triple, and quadruple meter, since they’re just how many beats are in the measure. In duple meter, you feel two beats to the measure. In Take Me Out to the Ballgame (the fast version), those two main beats mean that the song is in duple meter. Similarly, you would feel three beats in a piece in triple meter and four in quadruple.

Now let’s get into compound and simple meter and “divisions of the beat”. Sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame again and feel the two beats. But then try to hear the three beats contained in each “big” beat. That’s an example of compound meter. When you hear three sub-beats in each big beat, you’re in compound meter. Greensleeves is another song in compound meter – to be exact, compound duple. You hear two “big” beats and three “little” beats within them. If you only hear two “little” beats within the big beats, you’re in simple meter.

Now let’s do a little self-test – I’m going to list a few videos below and you can try to guess the meter. It’s easiest to figure out the big beats first and the little ones next. Good luck!

Other meters

Lastly, I just want to show you a few creative time signatures, such as the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. It is in 5/4 time.

Chopin, too, used 5/4 time, putting it in the 3rd movement of his Sonata No. 1. You wouldn’t think 5/4 time could sound very natural, but I barely notice the difference, personally.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition demonstrates “mixed meter”, switching off between 5/4 and 6/4 time. Throughout the suite, Mussorgsky explores a range of time signatures, from common time to 6/8 and returning to his 5/4 and 6/4.

There are plenty of other odd meters to be explored, such as free time (with no signature at all). You can read about them here.

Thanks for reading!

~ Maggie


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