Rhythm is rarely random – instead, it follows an underlying structure to give the song a certain flow, a structure called meter. In meter, depending on which beats are emphasized in a bar, completely different rhythms and “flows” can be created. Let’s look at how this works!
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In our recent interview with Jeremy Dittus of the Dalcroze School of the Rockies he explained how Dalcroze training can give you a physical instinct for how pitch and rhythm work in music, and specifically gave examples for how it can help you with understanding meter.
But what is meter in music? That’s what we’ll be talking about in this episode.
What is Meter?
Musical meter and the time signatures that go along with them are thoroughly covered by most music theory courses. But if you haven’t studied theory, or you’ve studied it and found it hard to really understand the concepts or put them into practice, I wanted to explain meter from a different angle – the listening angle.
The word “meter” was inherited from poetry where it describes the underlying structure of a poem. Whatever the words might be, there is typically a system of how many lines are in each verse, how many syllables are in each line, and the pattern of long syllables vs short ones and emphasised ones vs weaker ones. Now there is terminology and theory behind all this, but when you listen to a poem you just understand what’s going on instinctively and subconsciously. It’s what makes a poem sound like a poem and not just a string of words.
And to a large extent meter is what helps music sound like music and not just a sequence of pitched sounds. So the concept of meter is carried across from poetry to music but with one important difference.
You probably already know that the timing patterns of notes in music is referred to as *rhythm* – not meter! In music we actually have two layers: what you actually hear, i.e. the notes, and what the underlying structures are which influence where those notes fall and which ones are emphasised.
So when we talk about meter we’re not necessarily talking about something you actually hear. That’s the first big thing to understand. It’s something you *feel* which is implied by the notes you hear. That’s what can make it a bit tricky to get your ears around at first! But don’t worry, it doesn’t take long.
You can think of meter as an underlying skeleton or grid system of time which we then fit our notes into. In fact I’ll talk in a minute about how this all relates to what we talked about in our previous episode on Grid Notation.
So from what we’ve said so far you probably have a pretty good sense of what would define the meter of a piece of music. It’s going to be the system of when notes occur and which ones are emphasised.
There’s a basic unit of timing which we call the beat. That’s the regular pulse of the music. If you clap along with a song you’re probably clapping in time with the beat.
For example, here’s a bit of music:
And you might clap along like this:
You might accidentally clap at twice or half the speed of the beat – which is because the beat can naturally be split into subdivisions – more on that in a minute.
So we have this beat that creates a regular grid of when things tend to happen. But not all beats are created equal! We will generally emphasise certain beats and let others be weaker.
For example, if we’re clapping along it might actually sound something like this:
Now remember we’re not talking about rhythm, where the exact notes and which ones are emphasised can vary continually throughout a piece. We’re talking about the underlying structure which influences those rhythms.
Measures and Bars
That underlying structure is generally totally repetitive. This gives a second level of structure which we call measures or bars, where beats are grouped together based on the pattern of emphasis.
For example if we emphasise every second beat we’d have a measure that’s two beats long: ONE two ONE two ONE two ONE two.
This is common for traditional marches where the strong/weak pattern would tell soldiers when to swing their left leg and right leg to keep in time. The “strong, weak, strong, weak” becomes “left, right, left, right”.
If we emphasise every third beat and create measures that are three beats long it gives more of a waltz feel: ONE two three, ONE two three, ONE two three. Again, this corresponds to how dancers would move in repeating patterns of footwork for this music. Can you see why the physical exercises used in Dalcroze can be so effective for helping you tune in to the underlying meter in music?
The most common form of meter in modern music is what’s called “4/4” – it’s so prevalent that it’s also referred to as “common time”! In this pattern you have a strong first beat followed by three weaker beats. ONE two three four, ONE two three four, ONE two three four, Normally the third beat is a little bit emphasised too, but weaker than the first one. So we get a four-beat measure.
This is where we get our classic 4/4 rock beat pattern of bass drum, hi-hat, snare drum, hi-hat, like we talked about in the Grid Notation episode. The bass drum hit is strongest so it’s on beat one, the snare drum is a bit weaker so that’s on beat three, and then beats two and four just get the light cymbal hit:
Often the percussion part is the best thing to listen for if you’re trying to tune in to the meter. While the melody and harmony might be employing all kinds of interesting rhythms, typically the role of the percussion and bass is to follow the meter quite closely and give the other musicians and the listener a solid, clear sense of the beat.
We can certainly tune in to the meter without that – for example if you just hear a solo melody line played on saxophone, if you have some experience in music you can probably immediately hear where the measures lie and how many beats are in each measure – even if the notes played aren’t strictly following that structure. But in a lot of the music you hear today you’ll find the beat is outlined really clearly by the rhythm section of the band.
More on Meter
Now you might be wondering what that second “four” meant when I said it’s a “4/4” meter. Or whether beats are always halved or doubled to get the other subdivisions of a measure. Or what happens if notes occur at times not set by this underlying structure. Or whether you can actually have an underlying structure where the beats aren’t all the same length.
Those questions bring us into interesting areas of time signatures, syncopation and swing rhythms. Each of which deserve their own episode in future!
For now I just want to leave you with that core concept of what meter is: the underlying repeating structure of strong and weak beats, which all the notes you hear are built on top of.
Next time you listen to a piece of music, try to clap along with the beat. Ask yourself which beats seem strongest, and whether it’s creating measures of 2, 3 or 4 beats. You might like to seek out some marches, waltzes and rock songs to practice with each of these – we’ll put a playlist in the shownotes to help you get started.